Ga. election holds key to Democrats' Senate goals

November 30, 2008|By James Oliphant | James Oliphant,Tribune Washington Bureau

ATLANTA - Jim Martin was never supposed to be this close to a U.S. Senate seat.

A relative unknown in Georgia politics, the former head of the state's Department of Human Resources had to survive two primaries before securing the privilege of receiving what promised to be a whomping at the hands of Republican incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

After all, this isn't some swing state such as Ohio or Florida. This is Georgia, where John McCain topped Obama by five points and President George W. Bush won by 17 points four years ago. In 2002, Chambliss was able to unseat a decorated Vietnam War veteran, Max Cleland, in part by questioning his patriotism.

But Martin benefited from the heavy black turnout on Election Day and was able to draw close enough to Chambliss to force a run-off election, to be held Tuesday.

For the past three weeks, the Georgia Senate race has given the political world a last campaign fix. Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Sen. John McCain have all stumped here. Tomorrow promises the arrival of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to campaign for Chambliss.

The big-name attention to Georgia is rooted in the Democrats' effort to secure a 60-vote majority in the Senate, which would defeat Republican filibusters and allow easy passage of many pieces of legislation.

Right now, they hold 58 seats, with two races, here and in Minnesota, still not settled. Chambliss repeatedly calls himself "the firewall," the man who can single-handedly derail the Democratic agenda.

Polls show Martin trailing by three to five points, a gap that might be overcome in a run-off election, where voter turnout is the decisive factor. Many here say that if Obama came to Georgia to rally the African-American base, it would put Martin over the top.

But Obama has shown little inclination to campaign. After the November election, the early talk was of how Georgia would serve as a post-victory test of Obama's "brand" - a chance to see whether his formidable campaign machine could rev up one more time and deliver a death blow to the GOP.

Obama volunteers have flocked to Georgia from other states, and holdovers from Obama's campaign who engineered the surprisingly high turnout here remain at work, as well.

But Obama's office has played no day-to-day role in assisting the candidate. Republicans are still wary of a fourth-quarter appearance. "It's not Election Day yet," Mike Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said last week while touring the state. The committee has poured $2 million in advertising dollars into the state and has sent in volunteers.

Duncan, unsurprisingly, rejects the notion that Obama could lock down a victory for Martin, noting that McCain won Georgia. "The voters here have already rejected Barack Obama once," he said.

Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University, said Obama would be taking a risk in coming to Georgia that could damage his political momentum.

"If Obama really thought that Martin was going to win, he'd make a quick hit and claim victory," Black said.

Indeed, Bill Clinton stepped into a similar situation here as president-elect in 1992, backing Democrat Wyche Fowler in a run-off. Fowler lost, and the episode was one of several reasons that Clinton's presidency was considered to have gotten off to a shaky start.

Obama, however, remains a large part of the race. Martin's television ads prominently feature the incoming president - a case of a Southern white politician invoking an African-American to woo voters. Only 26 percent of white voters backed Martin a month ago.

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