Fear and loathing in Chambliss-Martin runoff 

Heading into the general election, Georgia's U.S. Senate race was all about Saxby Chambliss — and the reasons many voters had for being dissatisfied with their Republican senator's job performance.

Now, only days away from the Dec. 2 runoff, that election dynamic is ancient history. Now the race is all about a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate – under President-elect Barack Obama.

And on a deeper level, it's about that campaign promise of change.

Speaking last Wednesday at Clark Atlanta University before about 1,500 shivering supporters of Democratic nominee Jim Martin, Bill Clinton zeroed in on Chambliss' attempt to stoke Republican fears. In response to Chambliss branding himself as a "firewall" against unchecked presidential power, Clinton preached unity.

"This country doesn't need a firewall against the future," Clinton intoned. "It needs a bridge to the future." The former president repeated the imagery several times throughout his address.

Last week's news that felonious GOP Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska had lost his re-election bid has only given urgency to the scramble for Georgia's Senate seat. If the still-undecided race in Minnesota – it's currently mired in recount hell – tilts in favor of the Democrat, Georgia would be the deciding seat in a donkey-controlled Senate.

Not only could a Martin win earn Democrats their Senate magic number, it may also upend the already strained notion that Georgia is as scarlet a state as they come.

Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, says a Democratic victory has implications not just for Obama's relationship with the Senate, but for the way politics might play out in future Georgia elections.

"Symbolically, [a Martin win] could be a huge gain for Democrats in the state," he says. "I think it would encourage Democrats throughout Georgia and probably heighten the interest of Democrats in the [2010] governor's race [and] other statewide offices."

The runoff between Chambliss and Martin is now ground zero in national politics. It's a high-stakes sprint with crazy money at play, appearances by marquee names and enough top-shelf campaign workers on both sides to fill the Georgia Dome.

"Potentially, the success of President Obama's legislative agenda could be dependent on the outcome of this contest," says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

But the numbers might not be lining up for Martin. And a Chambliss triumph could cast the Republican senator as "The Man Who Saved the Senate from the Left."

In a flashback to his 2002 Senate campaign, Chambliss has again pinned his election hopes on his ability to stir up voters' fears. Back then, his strategy took the form of a notorious campaign ad portraying then-Sen. Max Cleland as a threat to homeland security, flashing images of the triple-amputee Vietnam veteran along with those of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

This time, Chambliss is scaring supporters with warnings of a far-left America under Obama. And he's getting plenty of help.

Former presidential nominee John McCain visited Atlanta two weeks ago to raise funds for Chambliss on the heels of a visit from ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee told crowds that a Martin win would quash the possibility of enacting the Fair Tax, a nationwide sales tax espoused by fiscal conservatives that has little chance of passage – regardless of who's in power. McCain told supporters at a Nov. 13 rally that the "eyes of the country and the world will be on Georgia Dec. 2."

Last week, ex-Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson endorsed the incumbent. An e-mail from Thompson's political action committee to its supporters stated that "holding the Georgia seat could very well be the difference in blocking the Obama administration's most radical social policies." As CL went to press, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani also were slated to stump here for the incumbent.

By relying on anti-Obama rhetoric, Chambliss seems to have artfully dodged the issues that plagued him during the general election: his unpopular support for President Bush's original immigration bill; his votes for one pork-barrel budget after another; his membership in the bipartisan "Gang of 10" supporting compromise on energy policy; and his vote in favor of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout package, a move that alienated many Republicans and infuriated Libertarians.

Meanwhile, Martin gained traction with general-election voters by drubbing Chambliss over the bailout vote (despite the irony that, in Saxby's place, he doubtless would have voted in favor of it as well).

THIS GO-ROUND, the runoff is a referendum on how comfortable Georgia voters are with their new president-elect. And, as always, it represents a test of how effective each side is at getting election-weary voters back to the polls.

"Runoffs are all about turnout – that's it," says Emory's Black. "[Martin] really needs a huge turnout from African-Americans and a slightly larger share of the white vote than he received in the earlier election."

But so far, the black vote hasn't turned out in droves.

In an effort to drum up excitement, the Martin campaign has some heavy-hitters of its own, most notably Clinton. Ex-VP Al Gore was scheduled to appear at a rally this past Sunday. But no word yet on the big prize – Obama himself, who would inject a whopping dose of excitement into the campaign. As CL went to press, there was much speculation as to whether the president-elect would risk the political capital – and the time he needs to create his transition team – to stump for Martin. Last week, the Washington Post quoted anonymous political strategists who said an Obama visit followed by a Martin loss could put a chink in the president-elect's armor.

At the very least, Obama's Georgia campaign infrastructure – 25 field offices and a grassroots army that mobilized many people who'd never even voted – has remained in place for Martin. And on Nov. 20, the president-elect lent his voice to a radio ad for Martin, telling Georgians the former state lawmaker would "help me change Washington."

Yet history – and early voting numbers so far – isn't on Martin's side. Nor will he benefit this time from having Obama's name on the ballot, which might further widen the three-point gap by which he trailed Chambliss in the general election.

According to Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel's website, voter turnout among African-Americans comprised 22 percent of early voters as of Nov. 21, compared to 34 percent in early voting for the general election.

Still, it's not too late to write off the impact of star power. After all, who better to rally supporters on a frigid night than Clinton, who personifies for many Democrats a better time in the United States. Between the shouts of "I love you, Bill," the faithful hung on to his every word.

"The person who wins [the U.S. Senate race] will be the one whose supporters want it the most," Clinton told the Clark Atlanta audience. "Don't think you can't win this thing."

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