Saturday, October 14, 2006

No room in the middle in Middle Georgia

Posted By on Sat, Oct 14, 2006 at 12:07 AM

It's tough to run as a conservative Republican against a Democrat who radiates battle-hardened conservatism better than a bronze statue of the RoughRiders.

Mac Collins has tried in television ads, and yes, his campaign supporters took a raise-the-roof mentality to Thursday night's debate in Perry. But U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall is an old pro who knows that the best way to beat a southpaw is to keep moving to the right and throwing right hands.

And when it comes to Marshall, almost everyone else seems like a southpaw -- even Collins.

There were some signs in Spanish scattered throughout the audience on Thursday night. But they turned out to be the evening's only reference to Marshall's house vote to allow bilingual ballots in voting districts where there are large numbers of Latinos.

Marshall's a Middle Georgia Democrat -- which in and of itself makes him arguably one of the more conservative congressmen in Washington, in either party. His stance on blocking illegal immigration, including an "aye" vote on construction of a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border to block the flow of undocumented workers -- is Macon-tough. Still, Collins insists on draping Marshall in the trappings of Nancy Pelosi liberalism -- in large part based on that one vote in favor of bilingual ballots. For the congressman's efforts on behalf of Spanish speakers, a Collins campaign ad snidely thanks Marshall in a Speedy Gonzalez Spanish accent.

The three reporters peppering the candidates in the Reeves Arena inside the Georgia National Fairgrounds kept away from the issue, instead focusing their questions on the war in Iraq and the Middle East in general.

That was fine with Marshall.

The crowd's cry for the challenger went up early. "We back Mac! We back Mac! We want Mac!" The congressman's supporters, meanwhile, were mostly as stoic and stony-faced as their ramrod candidate.

Collins received a question about Saudi Arabia, where the Bush family has long done business. Are we too closely aligned with this Middle Eastern nation run by big-oil sheiks? The candidate gingerly said he thought it was a mistake to be too friendly with the Saudis. Then he hit his stride.

"We need to become more self-dependent on ourselves," said the former six-time congressman. "We need to drill in ANWR (The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)."

The remark got a big hand.

Then Marshall was up to take a swing at a question about Iraq.

"I've been in Iraq nine times," said the congressman, who also pointed out that he was an Army Ranger and Vietnam combat veteran. "We need to stay in Iraq as long as we have to in order to get the job done." Charles Richardson of the Macon-Telegraph pressed Marshall on the issue, setting up an oval office scenario in which Marshall was president for a day. What would he do differently than Bush in Iraq?

Marshall said the American military's mission in Iraq is to train the newly formed Iraqi army to take charge of its own country's security. The congressman said if he were in charge he would "embed more" American troops in the ranks of Iraqi soldiers. "Frankly, we do that and we stick with it, and we'll win this thing," Marshall said.

The answer was a hard one even for Marshall's supporters, who are, after all, Warner Robins Democrats. The idea of staying the course -- Bush's mantra for three years now -- received all the enthusiasm of air escaping a tire. There was one woman in the small crowd of Marshall supporters shaking a sign overhead in what was otherwise stillness.

But there was likewise no movement in the Collins camp. How could they argue with a guy who was solidly backing Bush on the war?

Collins next fielded a question about what his top priority would be if he were elected.

He had a list ready. National security. Economy. Prosperity.

Then it was Marshall's turn. "My number one priority is to grow Robins Air Force Base," he said.

Later, as Collins slogged through an answer about the deficit, the fireworks show at the fair beyond the arena's doors reached a booming climax. A lot of red shirts in "Mac" ballcaps raised their Collins signs and shook them hard, but the cheers were stifled by the blasts outside.

"We're being attacked," Marshall deadpanned.

-- Max Pizarro

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