With his presidential aspirations riding on support in the Deep South, Newt Gingrich opened his final one-week dash to the crucial Georgia primary on Wednesday with a states' rights appeal laden with racial symbolism.
His setting was the ornate chamber of Georgia's House of Representatives, where Gingrich told lawmakers that he would fight for a "very strong" states' rights platform at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
"I want to return power back home to an extraordinary degree," said Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker who represented Georgia in Congress for 20 years.
For generations, politicians in the South used states' rights to justify racial segregation and, in the 19th century, slavery.
"When you say 'states' rights' in the Deep South, it is very hard to convince people, particularly African Americans, that you're not speaking in code," said Jeremy Mayer, the author of "Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000."
"I don't think that saying the phrase 'states' rights' means you're a racist. It simply means that, unless you immediately qualify it with some recognition of all the evil that was done under the term, then you're leaving it open to interpretation. And to the extent that Gingrich doesn't do that, that's a big mistake on his part — or it's all too intentional."
Gingrich, whose labeling of President Obama as "the food-stamp president" was the centerpiece of his TV advertising in January's South Carolina primary, steered clear of any overt discussion of race Wednesday. But in public remarks, he has often followed his "food stamp" line about the nation's first black president by lamenting poverty and joblessness among African Americans.
In his speech from the rostrum in the legislative chamber, Gingrich gave one example of why the U.S. government needed to shift power to the states: a bureaucratic tangle of 185 offices dealing with federal assistance to low-income Americans.
"I'd like to block-grant that into one office and send you the money and say you need to figure out how you're going to cope with helping people in Georgia who need help," Gingrich told the lawmakers, who responded with a round of applause.
Gingrich has often championed states' rights.
"It's a very simple conservative principle," said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, who denied there were racial overtones to the candidate's support of states' rights.
But it was significant that Gingrich raised the issue just as the national media spotlight was turning to his campaign to revive his sputtering candidacy by winning the Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma primaries Tuesday, followed by Alabama and Mississippi a week later.
Gingrich's losses in Tuesday's Michigan and Arizona primaries capped a two-month string of defeats, broken only by his Jan. 21 victory in South Carolina.
Gingrich's comments on states' rights mirrored the controversial speech that Ronald Reagan gave in 1980 to open his general election campaign against a Southern Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Reagan's setting was Philadelphia, Miss., a town best known for the 1964 murder of three civil rights activists in an area racked by Ku Klux Klan violence. Reagan lamented "the great tragedies of welfare," saying that people living on public aid were trapped in the bureaucracy of federal programs that "should be turned back to the states."
"I believe in states' rights," Reagan said.
Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin had urged the candidate not to open his campaign at such a racially charged location, to no avail. Following a pattern set by Barry Goldwater and other Republicans in the 1960s and '70s, Reagan's Mississippi speech was a milestone in the party's effort to capture the allegiance of Southern whites who were disaffected by the Democratic Party's support of civil rights measures.
Running for Congress in the 1970s in the conservative white suburbs of Atlanta, Gingrich, too, invoked states' rights, said Joseph Lowndes, the author of "From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism."
"This is language that's very comfortable for Gingrich," he said.
Gingrich has named Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lead a "10th Amendment project" to review states' rights issues in anticipation of drafting the party platform. In the Georgia statehouse on Wednesday, Gingrich told the lawmakers, "Gov. Perry will be looking to you for lots of ideas that we can take both to the national convention and write into law."