Democrats' desperate days

When will the party find a heavyweight candidate for the U.S. Senate?

It's not good when you've got The New York Times stomping around your back yard, pointing to you as the object lesson of all that's gone wrong with the South.

And yet that's exactly where Georgia's Democratic Party finds itself today — the subject of the Times' scrutiny.

Because the Dems have got only one little-known state Senate member, Mary Squires of Norcross, lined up to fill retiring Republicrat U.S. Sen. Zell Miller's shoes.

Meanwhile, the GOP is already fielding two congressional heavyweights: north metro's Johnny Isakson and middle state's Mac Collins. Just for good measure, the Republicans are also offering a former lieutenant governor candidate, Al Bartell, and Herman Cain, the ex top man for the Godfather's chain of pizza joints.

There are GOP candidates queuing for every major U.S. House race that's thought to be in play for a Republican — including Collins' and Isakson's seats.

Eternally optimistic Democrats, like state Sen. David Adelman, D-Atlanta, say it's not time to push the panic button. Indeed, with the Dems' recent U.S. Supreme Court victory in the redistricting case, Georgia v. Ashcroft, recapturing the state Senate becomes the party's primary focus. That may be true, but the Times wouldn't be wasting ink on Georgia if something wasn't amiss. These are not, after all, slow days for news. And that's got some less optimistic Democrats wondering if there aren't some problems at the top. A few fingers are beginning to point to state party Chairman Calvin Smyre.

But it's too early to hammer Smyre, a state representative from Columbus. For now, point the fingers at the tentative would-be candidates themselves, many of who seem too worried about the seat they have to risk grasping for a seat that will prove difficult to reach.

When Miller announced he would step down from the Senate, some Democrats immediately thought of former Sen. Max Cleland, who was defeated in an especially nasty election in November. And post-defeat, Cleland seemed to be finding a voice and feistiness that he appeared to lack at times during the campaign.

But reached in Washington, D.C., where he's teaching as an adjunct professor as part of an American University summer program, Cleland's mood immediately darkens at the mention of the Senate.

"To tell you the truth, I gave it my best shot last year, and it just didn't work out," Cleland says. "It's up to others now to take a crack at the seat. I'm here at American University to train and educate and inspire young leaders. That's what I'm doing with my life now."

Secretary of State Cathy Cox and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor have both said thanks, but no thanks. People are encouraging Department of Natural Resources board member and moneybags lawyer Jim Butler to consider a run, but he hasn't made any commitment. Neither has Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.

So that leaves U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon, and Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker eyeing the seat, and state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond eyeing Baker's moves. Thurmond, who has also been mentioned as a possible foe for U.S. Rep. Max Burns in the 12th District, says he's waiting to see what Baker does but has no plans to run for the U.S. House.

"I ran in what was the old 12th District back in 1992, so I've had that disease before," he says. Asked if he'd been cured of the illness, Thurmond joked: "They say the only true cure is formaldehyde. I've looked at it, to be honest with you, but I like my job ... but most seriously, I've looked at the Senate race."

According to a prominent Democratic fundraiser based in Atlanta, Baker has cooled to the prospect of running for the Senate seat. "He's not in the same place he was a couple of months ago," the fundraiser says. Baker did not return phone calls.

Which brings us to Marshall, who barely eked out a victory in the 3rd District last November, and who Thurmond called the Democrats' "flavor of the week." But he's a flavor that's little known in metro Atlanta — and he hasn't yet decided to enter the Senate race.

"He is second-tier in that he is not [known] statewide," says University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. "He's known in middle Georgia, but the guy on the street outside your office, if you ask him who Jim Marshall is, he'll probably say, 'That's my bowling partner' or 'a guy I went to school with.'"

Still, Marshall won election to the House and a mayor's race in Macon, so he's shown he can run a race and is known as a tenacious competitor. The question is whether he could raise enough money. If a female candidate runs — Franklin or Cox — it immediately churns up national money from Emily's List, a group that backs female political candidates. Marshall won't immediately be able to count on that kind of national support. Fundraisers would closely scrutinize his viability.

Some fundraisers and lobbyists are wondering when Smyre is going to have a "Come to Jesus" meeting to get this thing straightened out. Smyre did not return calls for comment.

"I just think Democrats ... need to recruit a consensus candidate, and I would be supportive of that person," Thurmond says. "I don't think that we could afford a very divisive primary, primarily because of the money issue. I just think that whoever the candidate is must be someone who can energize the base Democratic vote in the state."

The fundraiser, who asked that he not be named, doesn't fault Smyre, because there are so many voices — many from Washington, D.C. — trying to influence who runs. "What's that they say about a duck?" the fundraiser asks. "It may look calm on the surface but there's a lot of paddling going on underneath."

And even though Smyre has said that the party needs to have a candidate by the end of July, Adelman says the timing is more flexible.

"It's particularly early for a top-tier candidate if that top-tier candidate does not have to run in a hotly contested primary," Adelman says. "Particularly because the Republicans will be in what is shaping up to be, I think, a bloodbath."

Thurmond added that the Democrat, whoever he or she may be, is likely to have more money heading into the November 2004 election than the Republican, especially if Collins and Isakson beat the hell out of each other.

"That may be the greatest asset the Democrats have," UGA's Bullock says.

The fundraiser says Smyre's will be judged on how things progress at the state level.

"I think that also may be [Smyre's] focus — winning the state Senate back," Adelman says. "I know that's what the party elders are interested in doing. I'm hearing a lot of talk about that. Our caucus has been communicating with each other. People have been raising money for their own races, and our disclosures should be pretty good I think.

"We really feel like the Supreme Court's decision in Georgia v. Ashcroft puts us in a great position to recapture the state Senate, which is just critical to making up for some of the losses last November. I mean it was terrible to lose the governorship, but the critical losses were caused by the party switchers. That's what really devastated us."