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Jim Martin and Vernon Jones hope to catch Obama's wave in Georgia's Senate race 

Race to unseat Chambliss led by former lawmaker, DeKalb CEO

If Jim Martin is to stand a chance of unseating Saxby Chambliss in the U.S. Senate race, he must get a big bounce from what pollsters call the "Obama effect."

For Martin to reach the November election, however, he'd better hope the Obama effect doesn't kick in anytime soon.

The Peach State's potential as an Obama swing state has been the talk of the nation lately, a trend typified by a Time magazine headline last week asking, "Can Georgia be Obama's Ohio?" The theory posited by the candidate's strategists is that if the charismatic Illinois senator can stir up enough excitement here – and help register enough new black voters – then Georgia could be pulled into his win column, which would in turn benefit down-ticket Democrats.

The Obama effect – the impact of a generation of newly inspired voters heading to the polls for the first time – is likely to be felt most keenly by African-American candidates. In Georgia's Senate race, that means Vernon Jones.

By virtually any measure, the DeKalb CEO is a nightmare as a general election candidate. Let's just say it's difficult to imagine "family values" voters from Attapulgus to Zebulon going for a guy who used the ménage à trois defense against rape charges.

But in the Democratic primary, where African-Americans cast roughly half the votes, Jones holds an advantage as the only black candidate – and one with high notoriety – in a field of five Senate hopefuls.

Of those five, according to insiders, only former state House veteran Jim Martin will have the resources and organization to challenge Chambliss in the fall. But to get there, he must hold Jones to less than 50 percent of the primary vote. Pundits and political strategists are nearly unanimous in predicting a runoff between Jones and a candidate to be named July 15 by primary voters.

"I'm running for second place on July 15," says Dale Cardwell, the former WSB-TV/Channel 2 reporter turned Senate candidate. If the other candidates are being honest, they'll admit the same.

Rounding out the crowded Democratic field are Statesboro businessman Josh Lanier, a Vietnam vet who's spent 35 years in Washington as a congressional staffer and political appointee; and Atlanta native Rand Knight, a ecologist and businessman who scarcely looks his 36 years.

By several accounts, Martin was reluctant to jump back into a statewide race less than two years after losing the lieutenant governorship to Casey Cagle – even though he did better than most of his fellow Democratic challengers in the 2006 primary. Before that, he was commissioner of the state Department of Human Resources under Roy Barnes and had served 18 years in the state House. Cardwell says Martin told him last year that he was "worn out" by campaigning and didn't plan to run again.

Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, says Martin seems to lack a competitive fire at public events. "Watching Jim Martin," he says, "you wonder how enthusiastic he is about running."

Besides the call of his party, perhaps Martin was moved by the prospect of having millions of dollars' worth of help from the national party in fighting Chambliss – provided he's able to clear the primary hurdle.

Getting into the race so late has forced Martin to forgo the usual whistle-stop campaigning and concentrate on working the phone with big-money donors. While Jones – or at least his familiar campaign signs – has been spotted in far-flung communities across Georgia, Martin is relying on a blitz of TV advertising in the last two weeks to earn him a runoff slot.

Earlier this month, Martin's campaign released a poll claiming he was leading Jones by 5 percent, with the others far behind. But the most notable number in the poll was the 51 percent undecided – evidence that the primary remains up in the air.

That's where TV ads come in. At the end of March, after only 12 days as a candidate, Martin had raised nearly $350,000, putting him ahead of Jones in terms of cash-on-hand. A campaign insider predicts Martin will have close to $1 million to spend as the primary approaches. The next financial disclosure deadline is at the end of this month.

This means Martin's strategists should have the luxury of deciding whether to blow his war chest on three weeks of primary TV and radio ads, or hold their fire until two weeks out to save money for the Aug. 5 runoff. Cardwell and the others have posted videos to YouTube and their own websites, but Abramowitz says those won't enable them to reach the volume of voters necessary to win elections.

With Super Tuesday long past and November still months away, Abramowitz doesn't believe the influx of new black voters will be enough to allow Jones to avoid a runoff.

A one-on-one race would give Martin the opportunity to peel away some of Jones' black support by hammering Mr. CEO for dropping frequent hints that he might change parties and his curious claim that he voted for George W. Bush – twice.

Says Abramowitz: "The last thing black voters would want is a Bush supporter."

Former state Democratic Party head David Worley says the general election nominee will need about $5 million to be competitive with the well-funded Chambliss. Martin has shown himself to be an effective fundraiser, having collected $3 million in the 2006 election. But if he can win the runoff, Worley predicts the floodgates will open on funding from Washington to blanket the airwaves with anti-Saxby ads.

And Martin has friends in high places. He was recruited into the race by such Washington king-makers as New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who heads the deep-pocketed Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. National party pooh-bahs regard Chambliss as one of the most vulnerable of GOP incumbents, based on his undistinguished performance as a senator and record as a reliable lapdog to the poisonous Bush administration.

National polls point to a banner year for Democratic candidates. Party strategists are hoping to flip enough Senate seats – including Chambliss' – to create a filibuster-proof Democratic majority.

The question is: Will Georgia join the wave sweeping the country, or will we retain our reputation for lagging behind the curve?

Abramowitz, for one, is betting on the latter. He doesn't think Obama will carry the state. "I believe the Democratic tide will be really big, but not big enough to reach Georgia," he says.

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