NASHVILLE — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich on Monday slammed rival Rick Santorum as a "big labor Republican," accusing him of siding with unions over Memphis-based FedEx when the Senate grappled with a labor dispute in the 1990s.
Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman and House Speaker, is hoping to revive his struggling campaign in the South, and he tailored his message Monday to Republican voters in Tennessee. Although polls show a close race between Santorum and Mitt Romney, Gingrich challenged the former Pennsylvania senator and his conservative credentials.
"I think there are profound reasons that Rick lost the Senate race by the largest margin in Pennsylvania history in 2006 and I think it's very hard for him to carry that all the way to the general," Gingrich said. "Then he comes South and you take the case right here. He voted for the unions over FedEx. I suspect most folks in the state don't know that. But in fact he was a big labor Republican in Pennsylvania and I suspect when you get to Memphis and you say to people, `Gee, this is a guy who wanted to guarantee that FedEx give into the unions.' Santorum won't be as popular the following morning."
Gingrich was referring to a provision in a 1996 spending bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that sought to help FedEx truck drivers in their efforts to organize. A group of Democrats held up the FAA bill to protest what they said was an attempt to help FedEx prevent its truck drivers from forming a union.
In 2006, Democrat Bob Casey soundly defeated Santorum in his re-election bid.
Gingrich said if Romney wins the Michigan primary on Tuesday, "you'll see things start to clarify. If, as people expect, you end up with a Romney victory in Michigan tomorrow, I think you'll see Santorum getting a very different second look."
Bypassing Michigan and Arizona, the other primary on Tuesday, Gingrich said voters in Tennessee and his home state of Georgia could rejuvenate his presidential bid, which has stalled since he claimed a surprise victory in last month's South Carolina primary. The former House speaker said a handful of states voting on the mega-contest day of March 6 could propel him to wins in Mississippi and Alabama next month and delegate-rich primaries later in the spring in Texas and California.
"Then all of the sudden, the same media which said I was dead in the fall, I was ahead in December, I was dead in early January, I was ahead in mid-January, all of the sudden they're going to say ... Gingrich will be back again," he said during a luncheon with local Republicans.
Tennessee and Georgia hold nearly one-third of the 419 delegates at stake in the 10 states voting on Super Tuesday, contests Gingrich views as crucial to his struggling presidential bid. His campaign sees a potential backdoor opening if either Romney or Santorum stumbles, setting the stage for another showdown in a prolonged series of primary contests.
At a rally on the grounds of the State Capitol, Gingrich, a former history professor, said President Andrew Jackson would have been "enraged" by President Barack Obama, citing the president's recent decision to apologize for the actions of U.S. troops who burned Qurans while destroying documents on a military base in Afghanistan.
"Jackson understood that you want your opponents to respect you," Gingrich said, overlooking a statue of the 19th century president riding horseback. "They don't have to like you but they have to understand that you're formidable and you're dangerous."
Gingrich was reaching for a strong showing in Tennessee even as a statewide poll underscored his challenges here. A Vanderbilt University poll showed Gingrich at 10 percent in the state, trailing rivals Santorum with 33 percent and Romney with 17 percent. The poll of 767 likely Republican primary voters was conducted Feb. 16-22 and had a margin of error of 3 percent.
"The race remains very fluid in this state and will likely continue to move in response to the primaries in Michigan and Arizona," said John Geer, a Vanderbilt political scientist and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll. "Still, this poll suggests the climb is steep for the speaker, but far from impossible in this unpredictable year."
Earlier, Gingrich attended a health care forum at the law firm of former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr., R-Tenn., urging Republicans to think of this time as "the beginning of the replacement debate rather than just the anti-Obamacare debate." Gingrich has said he would repeal Obama's health care law if Republicans win congressional majorities.
Gingrich has offered a number of alternatives to the new health law, offering a tax credit to help people buy health insurance or the ability to deduct part of the costs from their taxes.
The former speaker returns to Georgia on Tuesday for a three-day bus tour around his home state, hoping to halt a monthlong slide.
"My basic hope is to pick up some delegates virtually everywhere, pick up a lot of delegates in the South and Southwest and then with Texas and California, be totally in the race," Gingrich said.
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