PEACHTREE CITY, Ga. — Newt Gingrich slammed his Republican rivals Friday for refusing to appear in a nationally televised debate from his home state of Georgia, a state the former House speaker has made central to his strategy of getting his struggling presidential bid back on track.
Gingrich made his remarks at a rally in the congressional district he represented for 20 years, speaking to a few hundred supporters. He planned several campaign stops across Georgia on Saturday with Herman Cain, a fellow Georgian and former contender for the GOP nomination who has since endorsed Gingrich.
CNN was forced to cancel the debate, scheduled to take place in Atlanta on March 1, after Mitt Romney declined to participate. Rick Santorum quickly followed suit.
The cancellation was a blow to Gingrich, who is banking on a strong showing on Super Tuesday, March 6, in Georgia, Ohio and eight other states holding contests that day.
"The average Georgian is going to say, the average Ohioan is going to say, `Let me get this straight. They won't come here to debate but they want my vote?'" Gingrich said, adding, "Anybody who's afraid of debating Newt Gingrich isn't going to be in very good shape to debate Barack Obama."
Gingrich, whose sole win came in South Carolina's primary Jan. 21, conceded winning Georgia was "crucial" to sustaining his presidential bid. His candidacy has struggled since Romney soundly beat him in Florida Jan. 31 and Santorum won contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7.
Gingrich also criticized ads run by a super PAC supporting Romney's candidacy.
The ads by Restore Our Future, which is run by former Romney advisers, have been harshly critical of Gingrich and the millions the group spent on the ads contributed to his defeat in Florida and Iowa. Restore Our Future is currently running ads in Michigan and Arizona, which hold primaries Feb. 28, as well as several Super Tuesday states.
"You can't hide behind millions of dollars in negative ads and think you're going to win the presidency," Gingrich said. "I think there is a declining impact of totally false ads, and I think you're going to see as Romney applies the same technique at Santorum, a general revulsion against this kind of purely negative campaigning."
Gingrich's campaign website posted a letter Friday from attorney Patrick Milsaps to Georgia television stations warning of potential liability if they aired Restore Our Future ads claiming Gingrich had favored legislation endorsing China's one-child policy. The group has run ads in several states suggesting Gingrich partnered with Democrat Nancy Pelosi to support legislation favoring such a policy, which has been discredited by several independent political fact checking organizations.
Follow Beth Fouhy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/bfouhy