By BRIAN BAKST
FEDERAL WAY, Wash. (AP) — Largely on the sidelines of the GOP race, Newt Gingrich is pinning his fleeting Republican presidential hopes on Georgia, where his political career began, and a cluster of states that vote the same day.
He's likely to sustain two more losses before Super Tuesday — in Michigan and Arizona, two states he's ceded to rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum — and could be riding a nine-state losing streak by the time the March 6 contests roll around.
The former House speaker has no opportunities for break-out performances in debates, which he used twice before to pull his campaign back from the brink.
He squandered an opportunity in a debate Wednesday night to reassert himself in what's become a two-man race. He was relegated to the role of referee between Romney and Santorum, an appearance that underscored just how much he's on the periphery of the GOP nomination fight.
As the political world focuses on Tuesday's contests in Michigan and Arizona, Gingrich's look-ahead, Super Tuesday strategy is filled with risks.
"There's only so long you can play for time," says GOP consultant Terry Nelson, a top strategist for previous presidential candidates who is unaligned in this race. "People pay attention around these contests. When you don't compete in them, you take yourself out of the conversation."
Not that Gingrich is letting such notions bother him.
"The fact is, even though this is at times hard and at times with its ups and downs, I am cheerful," Gingrich said Thursday as he gazed out over a packed Idaho ballroom. It's an adjective not usually used to describe the hard-charger with a reputation for being cantankerous, though Gingrich, himself, used it when candidates were asked in Wednesday night's debate to describe themselves in one word.
In recent days, he's retooled his message to focus largely on an aggressive domestic energy policy in hopes of capitalizing on voter anxiety over spiking fuel prices. It's unclear whether that's working. He's languishing in national polls behind both Romney and Santorum and isn't faring much better in races in upcoming states.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be after Gingrich's sound victory in South Carolina just a month ago. That turned out to be his sole triumph.
He went all out in Florida only to get thumped by a resurgent Romney. Low on cash, Gingrich barely competed in the states that followed — and had the underwhelming finishes to show for it. And he's left Michigan and Arizona to his opponents.
"Some candidates approach things day by day, minute by minute, tweet by tweet and donor by donor," Gingrich pollster Kellyanne Conway said in defending his strategy. "He's methodical, he's patient and he's also adaptable tactically and strategically."
Gingrich has been playing off a future calendar as he looks to amass delegates to the national nominating convention later this summer. He is concentrating most heavily on upcoming contests in Georgia, Ohio and Tennessee, which carry a possible 200 delegates among them.
Senior Gingrich advisers point out that many states with big delegate hauls won't come until April or later. The advisers add that states he skipped either held nonbinding votes or, in the case of Arizona and Michigan, seemed like places where the effort and expense wouldn't match the payoff.
There was another calculation for letting Santorum and Romney go one-on-one in those states: The Gingrich campaign theory is that Santorum victories would cripple Romney or at least knock him from a perch of inevitability. On the flip side, they say that a strong day for Romney would harm Santorum's standing as the front-runner's main alternative, giving Gingrich a new opening to claw his way back.
Still, Republican presidential campaign veterans say Gingrich needs to pile up some victories soon or he'll face pressure to drop out.
By his own admission, a win in Georgia, the state he represented for two decades in the House, is critical. He stops short of saying a loss would end his bid.
There are other reasons for staying in the race — from book sales to his documentary business to the paid speaker's circuit. Still, there are risks, too — staying in too long could damage his earning potential.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)