WASHINGTON — Political analysts are watching to see if high turnout among black voters in Georgia for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama will chip away at the Republicans' Southern firewall.
It will be a tough task. The last Democratic presidential candidate to take the state was Bill Clinton in 1992.
A poll by InsiderAdvantage last week has Republican presidential nominee John McCain leading Obama in the Peach State by 18 points. Ninety-four percent of Republicans polled said they would support McCain, while only 76 percent of Democrats said they would support Obama.
McCain also leads Obama, 73 percent to 19 percent, among white voters, according to the poll. In a possible sign that the Obama campaign is reducing its efforts in the state, a number of staffers were pulled from Georgia recently and reassigned to more competitive states like North Carolina.
Nationally, McCain and Obama are locked in a statistical dead heat, according to a new Ipsos/McClatchy poll. The national poll, released Thursday, finds McCain with 46 percent of registered voters and Obama with 45 percent. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.
Still, loyalists are keenly aware that Georgia's Democratic delegation could reap the benefits from an Obama presidency, said David Beattie, a Democratic pollster who analyzes Georgia politics.
"The Democratic primary was an epic battle between an establishment candidate and an outsider," Beattie said of the race between Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. "People who were with Obama early on had to make a choice to be with him, and some of those people who are qualified may be looked at for a Cabinet position."
Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, lined up as an Obama supporter early on. Bishop helps head the Illinois senator's state campaign and even helped pick the furniture for one of Obama's Georgia campaign headquarters.
Though others, such as civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, were slower to rally to Obama's side, subsequent support may go a long way toward endearing the Georgia delegation to an Obama White House, Beattie said. Lewis sits on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, and as such he is charged with helping write tax legislation and bills affecting Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs.
His role could prove pivotal in helping put forth the types of domestic policy changes that Obama has advocated. With the exception of Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon, all of the state's Democrats in Congress have thrown their support behind Obama.
Despite McCain's lead in the Georgia poll, there's reason for Republican leaders to watch the state with caution.
McCain has weathered lukewarm acceptance among the state's conservative circles — though his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, might help in that regard. Former Rep. Bob Barr, who once represented the Atlanta exurbs, is running for the presidency on the Libertarian Party ticket, which could cut into the Republican base in Georgia.
Republicans point to the election of Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson and Gov. Sonny Perdue as electoral coups that prove Georgia's ready to hold the "red" line. However, Democrats are looking to reverse that trend and have wasted no time claiming victories . . . no matter how dubious.
Last month, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a poll trumpeting that "Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Jim Martin starts the general election against Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss down by only six points and holding Chambliss to just 42 percent of the vote."
"Georgians are not happy with where Saxby Chambliss has taken their state and their country, and they're eager for change," DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said. "With the general election only beginning a week ago, Jim Martin is in position to mount a strong challenge."
By most national measures, including polls by MSNBC, Congressional Quarterly and Rasmussen, Georgia remains solidly in the "leans Republican" category.
And "Obamamentum" may not be enough to wrest the Senate seat away from Chambliss or make up for Martin's campaign war chest shortcomings.
"Chambliss is the heavy favorite to keep his Senate seat for a second term," Congressional Quarterly wrote recently. "The Democratic challenger, former state Rep. Jim Martin, faces an uphill battle to make a serious run at Chambliss, who benefits from Georgia's recently strong Republican voting trend and a daunting campaign finance advantage."
"Chambliss is not asleep at the switch", said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with the Cook Political Report. "You can't underestimate the military presence in Georgia, either. That's one constituency where Chambliss will do very well. He pays attention to veterans. McCain should do well there as well."
Exactly what impact turnout for Obama will have on Georgia's down-ballot races remains to be seen.
"(Georgia) is one of those states where it's going to be interesting to see whether this whole premise that Obama brings out a solid black turnout will be tested," Duffy said. "Georgia has one of the highest turnouts of African Americans in the country.
"Then there's the theory that for every increase with blacks there's an increase with white voters," Duffy said. "That's been proven in the '90s with the race between Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt."
In the 1990 North Carolina Senate race, Helms defeated former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt with 52 percent of the vote in a campaign noted for its racially charged advertising.