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White all over? 

Poor Taylor showing could turn back the clock for black elected officials

Thurbert Baker and Michael Thurmond made history in 1998 when they became the first African-Americans other than judges to win statewide elections in Georgia.

Now, with Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue threatening to rout Democrat Mark Taylor in the Nov. 7 election, there's a risk that Thurmond and Baker could lose their bids for re-election. And with that risk comes a chance that, outside the courts, Georgia will be left yet again with an all-white set of statewide officials.

"I'm in the toughest race of my career," admits Thurmond, the state labor commissioner.

Both Baker and Thurmond are political pragmatists, which is central to why both remain favored incumbents. Before running for statewide office, Thurmond won a state House seat in a majority-white district in Athens. As an appointee of Gov. Zell Miller, he gained credibility with conservatives by implementing welfare reform. And at the Labor Department, Thurmond has endeared himself to business leaders by cutting unemployment taxes. The department also has been recognized nationally for helping job-seekers get work.

But his challenger, Brent Brown of Atlanta, who advises government agencies on revenue management, argues that Thurmond has emphasized services for the unemployed at the expense of aggressively training workers. The commissioner offers a compelling comeback: It's Brown's party-mate, President Bush, who has cut funding in exactly the areas where Georgia needs the money to conduct job training.

"I think the criticism regarding job training is valid," Thurmond says. "It just [should be] pointed in the opposite direction."

Baker, who is Georgia's attorney general, faces a more politically experienced foe. Perry McGuire was a fierce social conservative in the state Senate, best known for raising the age of sexual consent. Until it was revised, McGuire's law made sex between 15-year-olds a criminal offense.

In the campaign, McGuire, a former corporate counsel for Chick-fil-A, is hammering Baker over the state's unsuccessful appeal of a Warner Robins murder case. Although the attorney general claims the case's problems were rooted in the errors of a Houston County district attorney, McGuire's TV ads blame Baker.

As attorney general and before that as Miller's floor leader in the state House, Baker has hardly been soft on crime. He steered Miller's "two-strikes-and-you're-out" life sentences through the Legislature and has been successful in preventing death-penalty convictions from being overturned.

Some of his actions -- the outspoken vigor with which he defended the state's gay marriage ban in court, for example -- may diminish the enthusiasm of Democratic constituents but also could inoculate him from claims by Republicans that he's out of sync with Georgia voters.

"I often worked against legislation he was supporting, particularly when it came to the anti-welfare stuff," says longtime state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. "Look, Thurbert Baker will run as a conservative -- taking parole away from violent offenders -- because this is the kind of thing that resonates across the state, among blacks and whites."

The conventional wisdom is that Baker and Thurmond have enough name recognition to attract independent voters. "By the time you get down to the eighth entry on the ticket," University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock says, referring to Thurmond's place on the ballot, "if you've heard of the incumbent and you know nothing about the challenger, and there is nothing the incumbent's done to disgrace himself or the office, you're going to go with ... the name that you know."

But some political analysts believe a poor showing by Taylor could generate a low-water mark for Georgia Democrats -- ironic in what's shaping up as a banner year for Democrats nationally. While the two incumbents maintain a fundraising edge, Georgia Republicans reported last week that they had $5 million -- 10 times the Democrats' amount -- to spend on TV ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Pollster and former Republican legislator Matt Towery notes that two Democratic statewide incumbents lost their re-election bids once before in Georgia, albeit in a landslide year for Republicans.

"It was the year [Newt] Gingrich took the House, 1994," Towery says. "There was such a wave of Republican dominance at the top of the ticket that the Democrat incumbent schools superintendent and insurance commissioner both got kicked out of office."

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