Georgia garnering attention as Senate runoff heats up

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 13, 2008 

Washington — Former Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain heads to Georgia today to stump for embattled GOP colleague Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the opening salvo in the overtime phase of Georgia's U.S. Senate contest.

McCain's appearance at a rally at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta, coupled with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's planned visit Sunday, kicks off the cavalcade of Republican Party luminaries who are throwing star power behind Chambliss’ campaign to win a Dec. 2 runoff against Democratic challenger Jim Martin.

The Georgia race is seen as critical in determining whether Democrats net a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and can therefore more easily push past Republican objections to the types of changes in legislative policy President-elect Barack Obama's administration might put forth.

During the Nov. 4 elections, Democrats gained a 57-seat majority in the Senate. However, three races remain unresolved: the Georgia contest, where neither Chambliss nor Martin gained the 50 percent plus one vote majority needed for victory; Minnesota, where a narrow race triggered a recount between Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken; and Alaska, where Democratic candidate Mark Begich now leads by three votes Sen. Ted Stevens, who was convicted of felony charges last month.

"John did carry Georgia and he understands the importance of this race, because he will still be in the Senate," Chambliss told reporters Wednesday. Chambliss called McCain the night the Arizona senator lost his presidential bid and McCain immediately pledged his support in the Georgia campaign should it proceed to a runoff.

McCain, who won Georgia with 52 percent of the vote to Obama's 47 percent, will lend a much needed gust of enthusiasm to Chambliss' campaign. Chambliss has also extended an as-yet unanswered request to former vice presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to visit the Peach State and stump for the senator.

Still, political analysts say, absent a high-profile presidential contest at the top of the ticket, election-weary voters might not feel motivated to return to the polls in large numbers Dec. 2. Both parties are working overtime to drive home the importance of the upcoming runoff.

Republicans have to have a sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort because the stakes are so high. The margins are close to a filibuster majority. Georgia is a conservative state and there are some concerns among the electorate about the policies put forth by the Democrat-controlled Senate," said Eric Tanenblatt, who served as political director for Paul Coverdell's successful 1992 runoff against Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler.

"On the Democrat side, it will be about supporting the newly elected president and getting his agenda passed. If I were Jim Martin, I would do all that I could to tie myself to the newly elected president, but I don’t know if that’s going to be enough."

Martin has reached out to Obama, who has responded by keeping roughly two dozen field offices open and by bringing in about 100 campaign staffers from across the South to pitch in, said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Martin campaign. Obama’s massive voter registration and get-out-the vote strategy is largely credited with helping narrow vote margins in down-ballot races such as the contest between Chambliss and Martin.

Though Martin has invited Obama himself to come to Georgia, there’s no word on whether the president-elect, who campaigned as a bipartisan reformer, will risk valuable political capital by getting personally involved in the partisan brawl.

In Georgia, a solidly red state, Obama may be one of the few Democrats who could get that party’s voters to head back out to the polls en masse.

There is precedent for newly elected presidents getting involved in Georgia runoffs. In 1992, President-elect Bill Clinton campaigned for Fowler in his ultimately unsuccessful runoff against Coverdell.

"Republicans had just lost the White House and with (George H.W.) Bush’s defeat, they saw this as an opportunity to make their voices heard," Tanenblatt said. "There's a lot of similarities between the two runoffs, but Georgia has become more Republican since then."

In Georgia, the governor, both U.S. senators, a majority of the state’s General Assembly and congressional delegation are Republican.

Still, Martin’s campaign is confident that voters, empowered by the changing of the guard at the White House, will turn out in high numbers in December.

"There’s a real difference between our campaigns," Canter said. Chambliss is "bringing in a line of celebrities and presidents past, present and future and making it about the first campaign of 2010 or 2012. (Martin) sees it differently and is focused on the new president and who will work to get the economy on track. You won’t see the same sort of line of political celebrities that Chambliss is trying to hang on to."

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