That dirty 'L' word

If liberal is so bad, why doesn't GOP win statewide?

Monday, a day before the primary, many Georgia voters received a negative mailer from Saxby Chambliss' campaign. But it wasn't directed at his primary opponent, Bob Irvin and the little campaign that couldn't.
Instead, the prescient piece attacked Max Cleland, presumably just to remind everyone what a godless Sodom and Gomorrah the senator would love to turn this country into if he and his "liberal" buddies had their way.

While the mailing itself stretched the truth, it still pointed to one of the truisms of this election season: Except for a handful of statewide races, it's over. With redistricting came lopsided districts that virtually guarantee that the primary victors will also win the general. Apologies to Clay Cox in the 13th District and Phil Gingrey and Cecil Staton in the 11th, but when voters pulled the lever Aug. 20, they decided who would represent them in Washington and under the Gold Dome.

So what are we left with? In the gubernatorial contest, Gov. Roy Barnes and his $10 million war chest are in gear to roll over a little-known, downstate challenger in Sonny Perdue. The former state senator faces an extremely difficult task in trying to unseat Barnes. That leaves your down ticket races — lieutenant governor, secretary of state, schools superintendent. And if the primary was any barometer for media coverage, they won't garner much mainstream press attention. So the main event here is clearly Chambliss vs. Cleland.

"That's the big enchilada," says Lynn Westmoreland, who as head of Georgia's GOP House delegation has been touring the state with Chambliss and Perdue.

By now, everyone knows what the Republican strategy to unseat Cleland will be. And not because they've already tipped their hands. To figure out what the next two-and-a-half months will be like, just turn back the clock to every other statewide race between a Republican and a Democrat since, oh, 1972. State GOP guru Ralph Reed and the troops are dusting off the "L" word.

Thing is, if calling a popular Democrat a liberal is such an effective tactic, why hasn't a Republican won a major statewide race since 1992? And in that contest, Sen. Paul Coverdell ran a disciplined campaign that effectively cast Sen. Wyche Fowler as a Georgian who'd "gone Washington." The normally affable Fowler, meanwhile, ran one of the worst campaigns this side of Cynthia McKinney and didn't even get along with the press traveling with him on the election circuit.

As for the Chambliss mailing, which accused Cleland of everything except the Trade Center disaster, Cleland is cited for supporting taxpayer-funded needle exchange programs. And he did vote for one as part of a federal appropriations for the District of Columbia. Problem is, Chambliss voted for it, too.

br>?Perdue: Isn't that French for lost?
Of course, Westmoreland doesn't want anyone to forget about the governor's race. He, for one, says it didn't matter who won the primary. In November, state voters are going to select the Republican candidate because he's simply not Roy Barnes. With the record GOP primary turnout, he may be on to something. The flag and redistricting and the Northern Arc and the education plan might be adding up in the minds of Georgia voters.

"It could be Frick. It could be Frack. It could be Mickey, Minnie or Donald," Westmoreland says. "Sonny just needs to keep his heart pumping till Nov. 5."

There may indeed be anger, but once Georgia gets subjected to 24 hours a day of Barnes-TV, their reaction may be more like "Sonny who?"

br>?The greatest story never told
Did you know that there was a metro congressional race other than the McKinney-Majette and Barr-Linder contests? Judging by the election night coverage of all the big media outlets, probably not. Somehow, David Scott's stunning victory in the 13th District congressional primary was largely overlooked.

Here's a guy whose old state senate district comprised just 2.5 percent of the 13th. He trailed two of the other candidates in the fund-raising game, and he faced four opponents — two state senators with bases in the 13th and the former head of the state Democratic party.

While the district had a favorable 42 percent black voting age population, conventional wisdom said that Scott would be in a run-off with Greg Hecht or David Worley. Even Scott's campaign manager, Kevin Ross, thought the campaign was headed for an extra frame.

Instead, Scott trounced the field by taking 55 percent of the vote. Scott, whose campaign put up billboards as early as February, emphasized campaigning that has fallen out of favor - old-style, get-out-and-touch-the-voter politics.

"The formula, conventional, cookie-cutter, consultant approach, I think that was one of the big casualties here," says Gary Horlacher, a former press secretary for Barnes and as an attorney with Alston & Bird, a very popular guy during the fund-raising season. "Meaning, there's a formula: You get on the phone; you raise money; you don't do the early kinds of what are demeaned as grassroots or old-style personal politics. Instead, it's money, message and media."

Sure, Scott spent six hours a day dialing for dollars, just like Hecht and Worley, but he combined that with a heavy field operation that had him out in neighborhoods most every afternoon.

"Hecht had a much more aggressive television buy," Horlacher says. "Worley got up on the last week, and had a decent buy. Scott was intermittent and he used a different formula."

Scott pollster Alan Secrest says much of the praise should go to campaign manager Kevin Ross and the care with which he assembled his candidate's team. Ross, who ran the successful mayoral campaigns of Maynard Jackson and Bill Campbell as well as John Lewis' 1986 congressional race against Julian Bond, says some media consultants still don't understand the black community. It's more than just getting on television, he says. Even billboards, which are normally seen as at best maintaining a presence, are understood as active campaigning among black voters, Ross asserts.

He and Scott crafted a relatively soft message that focused on health care, Scott's legislative experience and his passage of a moment of silence for Georgia public school students. His television ads emphasized the support from former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and home run king Hank Aaron — stuff you might not normally think would get voters out of their chairs.

Still, Ross says Secrest's final poll showed Worley with more than 20 percent of the vote and Scott still in the 30s with more than 20 percent still undecided. As election day drew near, however, Hecht and Worley went negative against one another, and Worley went way overboard with a mail piece that associated Hecht with a child molester. The attention seemed to turn off voters as the undecideds broke for Scott while Worley sank to just 14 percent.

As Scott now readies to face political novice Clay Cox, he won't have to salve any Democratic wounds.

"David has another luxury there in that he's not the one who went negative, so rallying the troops back to the cause, organized labor and those kinds of things, that's going to be pretty easy," Horlacher says. "There's one in the 'D' column you would think.