Elephant stomp

After nasty chairman's race, Reed urges GOP to save its firepower for 'the enemy'

A new chairman, long-anticipated bids for the governor's seat, and two candidates eyeing Max Cleland's job — such were some of the tidbits spread before the delegates to last weekend's Georgia Republican Convention.

For the politically minded, the affair offered not only a chance to meet, greet, schmooze and eat with virtually every elephant-type pol in the state; it also provided an advance copy of the state party's game plan for next year's election season. (Actually, considering the several hours of down time blamed on faulty delegate lists, balky computers and hanging-chad wary chairman candidates who apparently insisted on buzzard-eying each ballot, there was a bit too much shmoozing time. Isn't this supposed to be the hard-nosed, on-time, run-it-like-a-business bunch?)

Which is not to say there was no drama. For the past couple of months, GOP circles have been abuzz with the machinations between former Christian Coalition honcho Ralph Reed and political strategist/ex-party director David Shafer over who would chair the state party.

An increasingly urgent — and nasty — series of letters and emails continued right through the convention, with circulars painting Reed as a ham-fisted political hack whose foray into political consulting since leaving the Coalition has scuttled several campaigns. (Particular note was taken of Reed's involvement in the 1998 lieutenant governor's bid by scandal-plagued ex-Fulton County Commissioner Chair Mitch Skandalakis, who not only lost his campaign but is also, by his own admission, waiting for the feds to back up to the door with a dog-wired SUV.)

There was also much partisan theorizing that Reed's religious right ties would frighten off moderate Republicans and shaky-kneed Dems thinking about jumping ship. In fact, even as the convention wound down, "anybody but Ralph" activists were still distributing flyers (one impressive entry featured a grinning black man made up as genie and warning that Democrats' greatest wish is for Reed to lead the party, because his involvement in racially-tinged campaigns would spur a backlash).

In response, Reed's backers pointed to his calls for minority outreach, and cited his work for more mainstream candidates since leaving the Coalition as proof that he's no longer a scary Bible-thumper.

Shafer, on the other hand, came in for few such frontal attacks despite the baggage he's acquired over a relatively short but often bloody career as a take-no-prisoners political strategist and campaigner (although, again, there were plenty of folks willing to snipe in private). And, although Shafer has been involved in some fairly prominent political fiascos (anybody remember a big-spender name of Millner?), Reed's backers preferred to vamp on their boy's national name recognition and fund-raising prowess.

A third candidate, longtime party official (and the only entrant whose career hasn't been in politics) Maria Strollo, earned high praise from all corners as sharp, dedicated and able to reach out to moderates. She sunk with scarcely a ripple.

After pledging to "replace King Roy Barnes with a tax-cutting governor" and "send Max Cleland back home to Georgia to learn about the values of the people he has lost sight of," Reed finally assumed the party chairmanship (final tally: Reed, 1,462; Shafer, 868; Strollo, 88). Echoing the convention's theme, he urged his new congregation to avoid any lingering acrimony and concentrate on "defeating liberal Democrats and not fighting each other."

The decision to go with Reed over Shafer should not have been unexpected. The Christian conservatives who form his base are constantly on guard against moves that may weaken their tightly held ideological positions in favor of more pragmatic concerns (like winning elections). And the same strategy honed by long-departed strategist Lee Atwater continues to bear fruit for the 'Pubs: Talk inclusion but cater to the ideologues, and the pragmatists will follow. That's why they're pragmatists.

And pragmatism was largely a theme of this convention. From the "think majority" stickers and banners on display everywhere to the concerted anti-Barnes message pounded home by speaker after speaker, it was apparent that party leaders are tired of fractious in-fighting so tattering candidates before primaries that, by Election Day, they're unable to win.

Among those unveiling plans for the upcoming battles: State Superintendent Linda Schrenko, who has made no secret of her intention to be the next governor, finally made it official. Likewise for Cobb County Commission Chair Bill Byrne, who similarly would like to oust Barnes, and whose combative announcement was well summed up with his closer: "The real enemy is the Democratic leadership of this state ... and Roy, I'm comin' after you!"

Blasting the governor for perceived power grabs by pushing through last year's Greater Regional Transportation Authority and this year's Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, both of the contenders also pilloried the governor's role in changing the state flag, and vowed to hammer him on the issue. (Even so, an effort to add the flag issue to the party platform, offered later in the convention, was voted down over the protestations of a loud — but losing — minority.)

Schrenko, as she has since early last year, inveighed against Barnes' education reforms, saying he has unfairly attacked teachers and foisted a one-size-fits-all program onto local educators. But she also addressed the upcoming primary battle with Byrne — her only announced competitor thus far — and said she and Byrne had promised to "honor Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment" against attacking fellow Republicans.

Maybe so. But neither is particularly noted for restraint, particularly on the campaign trail, and afterwards Byrnes smiled when asked about Schrenko' pledge.

"As political personalities, she and I have one common goal: to be governor," said Byrne, his gold-and-silver Marine emblem flashing. "That's where the commonality ends." Byrne allowed that he has "several areas" he plans to challenge Schrenko on. For instance, he says, while Barnes' education plan has many failings, Schrenko has been the state's school chief for two terms. "I'm anxious to ask Linda some accountability questions," he said. "What, exactly, has she been doing?"

"We don't want it to get so nasty and bloody, with the party so split, that we can't win. But," he added with a tight smile, "we're not going to be sitting around holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya,' either."

Schrenko, too, is under no illusions about her upcoming battle.

"I talked to Bill, and said, 'Listen, I understand you're a street-fighter; I've been called the same thing.' But I wanted to make it clear that I'm not here to fight with him."

Answering criticisms that her experience is more limited than Byrne's, who has had a leadership role in Cobb County government for more than eight years, Schrenko pointed to her department's $7 billion annual budget as proof that "I'm not just sitting over there reading stories to children. I can manage money, and I insist on accountability." In fact, it's money she's most concerned with: Her last campaign cost some $350,000, she says. To even make a serious run at the well-heeled governor, she reckons $3 million is the least she needs.

Also gearing up for battle was Rep. Bob Barr, the Man Democrats Love to Hate, who is so concerned with the upcoming Statehouse battles over congressional redistricting that he's already made contingency plans if, as expected, state leaders try to draw him out of his seat.

"We've already sold our house, and I'm ready for whatever happens," he said. But he's clearly got bigger things on his mind. "Hey, if I run for Senate, will you vote for me?" he asked as a delegate walked by. So is he contemplating a run for Cleland's seat in 2002? "I said if I run," he responded. For Barr, that's downright coy.

Not so coy was state Rep. Bob Irvin, the former House minority leader who was voted out of that slot by colleagues convinced that the thoughtful Atlantan was too "soft" on Democrats.

His announcement (also well foreshadowed and expected) of a bid for Cleland's seat promised a tough fight, in which he'll try to paint Cleland as a liberal obstructionist intent on "fighting President Bush every step of the way." Acknowledging that opposing a disabled war hero can be touchy work, he said, "This debate is going to be about his voting record, not his war record."

Afterward, he characterized Cleland's recent moves to help craft a passable version of the president's tax-cut plan as political positioning. "I think he resisted as long as he could, then he was forced to support it ... I expect he'll be trying to appear more conservative between now and the election."

As for the party itself, look for it to appear more like George W. Bush's campaign between now and the elections. Reed — who was among the consultants for the president's team — continually spiced his rhetoric with allusions to "compassionate conservatism" and "leaving no child behind," and there were even a few black faces among those offered up for various party slots this year.

But the question will be whether this "One Big Happy Family" tone can be maintained as the stakes get higher, and whether the cadres of young, aggressive and generally ruthless political guerrillas that power modern campaigns can be convinced to save their live ammo for the "real enemy," and just use tear gas and rubber-coated bullets on their pals in the elephant pen.