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Whipped, beaten and without a clue 

Georgia's Democratic Party doesn't have candidates, a message or organization

State Sen. Sam Zamarripa has a suggestion for Georgia's Democratic Party (and I'd call it the "pathetic Democratic Party" but I hate to indulge in redundancies).

"The donkey needs to take a bath," says Atlanta Democrat Zamarripa, the highest-ranking Latino in state government. He's retiring from the Senate after two terms, partly because of frustration with his party.

In Gwinnett County, Mike Berlon, who is vying to become the new chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, has this dismal assessment of the group: "The Republicans run their party like IBM. We run ours like the fraternity in Animal House."

Veteran political commentators are even more brutal. Democrat-leaning Bill Shipp, dean of Georgia pundits, declares that the "Democratic Party as we know it ... [is] dead or dying." And, arch-Republican Dick Williams, host of WAGA-Fox 5's weekly "Political Gang," chortles, "They're history, history."

There's no doubt that, at least at the top of the Nov. 7 ballot, Democrats imploded, exploded, stumbled, fell, self-immolated, did a swan dive off the cliff, smushed themselves in the face with a cream pie and, by almost every measure, made themselves irrelevant. The only question is whether they are irrevocably irrelevant.

Shipp, who has been crunching polling data and election results, notes that populous counties that haven't tallied a majority for a Republican governor in four decades -- Bibb, Chatham and Muscogee -- voted for Gov. Sonny Perdue. And, Shipp's computations show 17 percent of blacks voted for Perdue. "Amazing," Shipp says. If 17 percent of African-Americans voted Republican across the nation, the GOP would be in power forever everywhere.

When you list the Democrats' strengths and liabilities, the plus column is nearly empty and the minuses run off the page. True, Democratic incumbents held onto seats, from two bitterly contested rural Congressional districts, to three constitutional offices, to the Legislature. But in most cases where open seats were at stake, the GOP beat the sad-sack Democrats.

Many in the party blame its outgoing chairman, Bobby Kahn. Kahn, former Gov. Roy Barnes' version of Karl Rove, doesn't accept the criticism. "We didn't do bad considering the money we had," he says, apparently forgetting that four years ago, when the party and Barnes had mountains of cash, the Democrats also were shellacked.

Kahn was accused of a huge strategic blunder after he ran Barnes' 2002 re-election campaign: squandering big bucks on TV commercials rather than building grassroots organizations that can match the GOP's awesome get-out-the-vote machines.

And Kahn is chided for not recognizing reality. "The state party in the past was just an offshoot of the governor's office," Berlon says. "It was run by people who were handpicked by the governor. I'm not too sure the news has sunk in, but the current governor isn't a Democrat."

When all Democratic political power emanated from the governor, long-term planning wasn't a serious consideration. While the Republicans were fine-tuning an ideological message and a decades-long strategy, Berlon says, "we were spending too much time thinking five minutes into the future."

If all of that wasn't enough to bury the party, in the last days of the campaign of John Eaves, the party's candidate for Fulton County Commission chairman, a race-baiting ad ran that featured three of Atlanta's leading Democrats -- former Mayor Andy Young, Mayor Shirley Franklin and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. The radio spot claimed black voters' lives "may depend" on voting for Eaves.

"Franklin spent years building bridges," Williams says, "and in one 30-second spot, destroyed all of her work. It was a slap in the face of every white voter."

Can the Democrats regroup? "The party for the last four years has tried to get Sonny rather than go back to square one and ask, 'What did we do wrong?'" says Angelo Fuster, a Democratic political consultant. "To understand just how bad the thinking was, the party wrote off most of the white vote outside of Atlanta, but didn't want to emphasize urban blacks too much. What was left? Nothing but disaster."

Tim Cairl, a campaign consultant who sits on the state Democratic Committee, observes, "We've let the debate boil down to simplistic slogans, such as gay marriage," he says. "We've lost the ability to communicate on larger issues, and if we want to regain our influence in the state, we must be the people promoting middle-class issues. We stand for unequivocal support of public education, for example. We must communicate that and why it's important for every Georgia citizen."

Beyond developing the message and building local networks, the question is candidates. Democrats didn't -- or couldn't -- field attractive candidates in many races.

"No doubt that our first priority is attracting the best and brightest to run for office," Zamarripa says. "The overwhelming need is to recruit more women. They're more prepared to talk about the issues that people relate to."

Cairl suggests Democrats tone down the wonk talk and "use their own experiences, their own values to carry a message." In other words, the religious right isn't the only group that ought to speak the language of faith.

Still, no one will name names of potential party-saving candidates. Kahn, Zamarripa, Cairl -- they all go silent when pushed for a name. Some in the party have suggested convening the old warhorses -- Barnes, former senators Sam Nunn and Max Cleland, even Jimmy Carter -- to rally the troops.

But about the only suggestion for new names comes from Republican Williams. "Now Jim Marshall (who held onto his mid-Georgia congressional seat by a thin majority) is a helluva good man," Williams says. "And Cathy Cox, I think she'll come back. Look, some say she walked away from the party. I think she walked away from what was clearly going to be a failed strategy."

A guy who barely won and a loser. That's the party's hope?

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