ATLANTA -- Some 400,000 Georgians are expected to vote today in a Republican primary whose significance probably will be measured almost entirely by the loser's share of the vote.
President Bush is an odds-on favorite to defeat conservative challenger Patrick J. Buchanan; late opinion polls show him leading about 2 to 1.
But some Georgia politicians believe Mr. Buchanan is capable of replicating the 37 percent of the vote he achieved in New Hampshire two weeks ago in his only earlier head-to-head test with the president. The key to how the results are interpreted is whether the challenger shows gaining momentum and exposes continuing weakness in the Bush campaign.
If Mr. Buchanan cannot display such strength, he might be in danger of being relegated to the status of nuisance candidate going into the Super Tuesday primaries March 10 that include six tests in southern or border states. And that, in turn, could begin to dry up contributions to his campaign and the press attention that Mr. Buchanan has been exploiting so successfully.
The White House has responded to the Buchanan challenge here far more vigorously than was the case in New Hampshire. Although Mr. Bush's personal campaigning here was perfunctory, his organization has run tough negative radio and television ads attacking Mr. Buchanan on issues as diverse as his opposition to the Persian Gulf war and his contention in a 1983 newspaper column that women were "less equipped psychologically" than men in the business world.
Mr. Buchanan also has changed his emphasis here away from the economic issues that had so much appeal in depressed New Hampshire. The challenger has been targeting culturally conservative voters by blaming Mr. Bush for the National Endowment of the Arts funding of a documentary movie dealing with homosexuals and by accusing the president of signing a "quota bill" when he approved the 1991 civil rights bill.
The issues are similar to those arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms used in winning re-election in North Carolina two years ago. And, like Mr. Helms, Mr. Buchanan is using them in the hope of encouraging small-town and rural Democrats to cross over and vote in the Republican primary, as Georgia law allows.
Mr. Buchanan's priorities have been evident in the past week as he has brought his two-bus motorcade into as many as eight or nine small towns each day, excoriating Mr. Bush into every available camera, microphone or reporter's notebook.
The White House has shown some apparent uneasiness about Mr. Buchanan's appeal to the religious right. Mr. Bush's Sunday schedule was changed, for example, so he could speak at the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, the largest Southern Baptist congregation in the state. And the president fired NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer when Mr. Buchanan began using the issue.
The share of the electorate represented by the religious right is not easy to define. Television evangelist Marion G. "Pat" Robertson polled 16 percent of the vote in the 1988 primary that Mr. Bush won with 54 percent to 24 percent for Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, whose campaign already was crippled by the time it reached Georgia. The core of regular Republican support lies in the heavily white and white-collar suburbs around Atlanta.