Never let it be said among diehard political supporters that the campaign season is dull, even when one candidate is 20 points down in the polls. There are always some licks to get in, and that's what happened Thursday night in Perry's Reeves Arena. A screaming hometown hoard clutching "Sonny" signs far outnumbered the visiting team, the tight-knit "Big Guy" club, as the passion level on both sides approached what one might find at a state championship high school basketball game.
The theme of the evening was corruption and education, or education and corruption, depending on how that old interchange of hope and cynicism grabbed you at any given moment of the roughly one hour that Gov. Sonny Perdue debated challenger Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor.
Dignified to the point of aloofness, and terse in his answers -- and who wouldn't be, with that kind of lead -- Perdue faces the most serious corruption charge: that he obtained a specifically targeted $100,000 tax break for an out-of-state land deal he engineered last year, courtesy of the Republican Legislature.
Yet it was Taylor who took the hits on Thursday night, courtesy of the crowd.
Outside there was a Ferris wheel and paddle boats and peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream, and all the other trappings of the annual Georgia National Fair. Inside there was politics and bloodlust. Underdog Taylor was down, and the Sonny crowd was going to make sure he stayed down, making the Charlie Mingus autobiography Beneath the Underdog especially applicable to any Democrat who thinks he can govern Georgia.
Taylor made the debate about education, and his argument was simple. Perdue cut education funds. Taylor was the man who created the Hope Scholarship. Perdue gave teachers a bad health insurance deal. Taylor received the endorsement of the Georgia Association of Educators.
"The teachers know they have been mistreated by the change of health insurance," Taylor said.
He repeatedly tried to make that the issue. When it had nothing to do with the question, he came back to it anyway.
When a reporter asked him about over-the-limit campaign contributions he allegedly received from his father's contracting company, which does business with the state, Taylor changed the subject over a chorus of boos from the Perdue camp.
"What you have is a distraction," he said. "That is a distraction from over a billion dollars worth of cuts to our schools. We need to restore cuts to the Hope Scholarship program."
The crowd continued to jeer, and on that wave Perdue threw out a line aimed at prompting a deeper laugh from his willing supporters. It didn't, and that was a surprise -- not because it was a good joke, but because all evening they lapped up everything "Sonny did."
"I think Pinocchio's turned into a robot," said the governor, alluding to an ad from his campaign.
Taylor jumped into the silence.
"The people of Georgia," he said, "deserve a governor who's above name-calling." Then he went back to his theme, again criticizing Perdue for overseeing "$1.2 billion of cuts to our kids." The crowd's impatience swelled again and there were some laughs and handclaps this time as the reporter asked Taylor the same question over again about the campaign contributions from his father's company.
"All of the contributions were legal," Taylor said. "And as I said before, this is a distraction. It's a distraction from the cuts to our schools, and cuts to education and health care."
There was a young supporter of Taylor's down in the front row where the audience was assembled and the lieutenant governor pointed him out, saying the governor had time "to get a $100,000 tax cut, but not time to get Xavier to the doctor."
Perdue just basked in the ongoing adulation.
Down the stretch, Taylor re-stated his argument: Restore cuts to education. He also said he wanted to remove from medications the Republican-imposed sales tax.
In closing, Perdue said nothing memorable that made its way above the din of the crowd.
"Four more years! Four more years!"
It was getting late, and as Perdue and a beaming Taylor moved off the stage, the Big Guy's side also dispersed, leaving the room to the hometown fans. There was a sack of pork rinds -- "Pork Skins for Sonny" -- torn, its mashed contents spilled out on the floor, but more than a few winning smiles flashed under ballcaps where one gleeful word was printed: "Sonny!"
-- Max Pizarro
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