In the quickening cold on Wednesday evening, Augustine Smith, a wide-grinning middle-aged man from Duluth by way of West Africa, leaned against a railing in the crowded Arnett Quadrangle at Clark Atlanta University, Barack Obama hat perched atop his head, and waited for the man many of these people came out to see.
Not U.S. Senate Democratic nominee Jim Martin, although the event was in his honor and Smith said he'd vote for the former state lawmaker again, but former President Bill Clinton. The president had visited Atlanta to stump for Martin in his runoff race against incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss before zipping off to a local fundraiser.
"This country does not need to build a firewall," Clinton told the energetic crowd of 1,500 people, referring to how Chambliss has described his role in a Democrat-controlled Senate under Pres.-elect Barack Obama. "It needs to build a bridge to the future. Martin's the bridge, Chambliss is the firewall."
Clinton repeated this mantra over and over as he attempted to enthuse supporters to do what Republicans know best and Democrats have historically proven unable the tricky task of getting the voters back to the polls in a runoff.
"The person who wins [the U.S. Senate race] will be the one whose supporters want it the most," Clinton said. "Don't think you can't win this thing."
And "this thing" has important repercussions. After an historic General Election that saw Democrats gain seven seats in the Senate, Georgia is one of two states the other being Minnesota that will decide just who helps determine the success or failure of Obama's initiatives after he takes office. Alaskan Republican Sen. Ted Stevens lost his seat yesterday to Democratic candidate Mark Begich. In the North Star State, incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger Al Franken are tapping their fingers while votes are recounted. To wield filibuster power, Senate Democrats need 60 seats a Martin win would be one closer to that number.
"This election has enormous significance for the things you want in a new America," Clinton said.
Turns out everyone got the memo. Since the runoff, political action committees and special-interest groups have funneled money into the state and purchased media in support of their respective candidates. Nearly every Republican primary presidential candidate has swooped into Georgia to stump for the incumbent since the runoff was announced. Al Gore is scheduled to rally for Martin this weekend.
The former president also recognized Max Cleland, the war veteran and former senator whose 2002 loss to Chambliss still has many Democrats smarting not just from the defeat, but also the tactics Chambliss used to win over voters.
"I adore your former senator, Max Cleland," Clinton said, as he looked toward him. Clinton revisited the ad Chambliss' campaign aired that Democrats say unfairly aligned Cleland with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and called the then-senator lax on homeland security. The former president said people were duped.
When I saw someone wanting a Senate seat so bad that he accused Max of endangering the national security of this county, Clinton said, adding that President Bush had also disapproved of the legislation before signing off on an amended version. But people were afraid. They stopped thinking.
Prior to Clinton and Martin's late arrival, state Department of Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond and Public Service Commission Democratic nominee Jim Powell who's running his own runoff race against Republican Lauren "Bubba" McDonald and is campaigning alongside Martin under the slogan "Just vote Jim" also urged the crowd to call their friends, return to the polls, and repeat the turnout seen on Nov. 4.
Whether or not that'll happen is up to the voters. Questions remain whether the Democrats can generate the kind of turnout needed without a historic top-of-the-ballot-figure like it had in Obama. The president-elect has left his Georgia campaign's infrastructure in place, however, and a surprise visit by Obama is anyone's guess.
But when the crowd was asked by a former Obama campaign worker to reach into their pockets and purses, pull out their cell phones, and call a friend to remind them to vote, many did just that. Two girls leaning against the railing near the television cameras both called a friend and reminded him or her to vote for Martin and Powell on Dec. 2. They stressed the date and told the friend to vote early if he or she could. Rachel and Gabriel Newman, twins from Chicago who attend Clark Atlanta, said they will return to the polls and have friends who say they'll do the same on Dec. 2.
Highlights of the evening that I couldn't slip into the post above but want to add, just because oh, I don't know for posterity's sake: Michael Thurmond's singing abilities ("Ain't gonna let ole Saxby turn us 'round/Ain't gonna let ole Bubba turn us 'round/Keep on votin'/Keep on votin'"); the number of people clutching "My Life," Clinton's autobiography; State Rep. Dubose Porter, D-Dublin, Mayor Shirley Franklin, state Agricultural Commissioner Tommy Irvin all in attendance. It was a cold, cold night, and how Clinton and Martin were able to address the crowd wearing just suits is beyond me.
To view CL's slideshow of the Martin rally, click here.
(Photo by Joeff Davis)
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