Democrats have all but conceded Senate seat to Chambliss

Call him a flip-flopper, a panderer or a shamelessly dirty campaigner.

Saxby Chambliss arguably may be all those things. But you can't call him endangered.

As the days tick by without a big-name Democratic challenger stepping up to the plate, Georgia's senior senator is that much closer to getting a free pass to re-election next fall.

It didn't have to turn out this way.

Back in May, when Chambliss and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson delivered a sales pitch for President Bush's immigration bill to fellow Republicans at the state party convention in Gwinnett County, they were nearly booed off the stage. The bill would have provided more border protections, penalized employers who hire undocumented workers and offered a demanding path to citizenship. But angry conservatives whipped into a Lou Dobbs/talk-radio froth summarily dismissed it as amnesty for illegal aliens.

Both senators quickly executed a political about-face and have since voted against every immigration compromise that's reached the floor.

The irony was that Chambliss' efforts in shaping the doomed bill through compromise with Senate Democrats was likely the most statesmanlike achievement of his lackluster political career. If there's such a thing as a back-bench senator, the man from Moultrie is it. Whereas Isakson is gaining a reputation as a consensus-builder who can reach across the aisle, Chambliss is regarded largely as a GOP placeholder, a reliable party-line vote who is all-the-more irrelevant now that Congress is in the hands of Democrats.

Which is to say there was a moment when Chambliss was seen as vulnerable. Certainly, according to a party insider, Democratic Party bosses in Washington were gunning for him in retaliation for his infamous 2002 attack ads – Chambliss accused then-U.S. Sen. Max Cleland of insufficient patriotism and pictured the disabled Vietnam vet in a montage with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. There were millions set aside for mailings and get-out-the-vote efforts, just waiting for a top-tier Democrat to come along and claim the bounty.

And waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

So far, the highest-profile challenger to step forward has been DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones, a man toting so much personal baggage he could be a Samsonite spokesman. His very candidacy seems so quixotic and futile that, among pundits, the mere fact of it continues to elicit a collective "WTF?"

The other Democratic hopefuls include former WSB-TV reporter Dale Cardwell; Statesboro businessman and former congressional staffer Josh Lanier; Rand Knight, a 35-year-old environmental consultant from Atlanta; and Maggie Martinez, a Rockdale County Spanish teacher from Puerto Rico.

Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz is brutally succinct in sizing up the current state of the Senate race: "There's just not a credible candidate in the Democratic field. Without that, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee will definitely not be sinking any money into Georgia."

By most accounts, Democratic operatives went into serious begging mode to entice ex-Gov. Roy Barnes and U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, a tough Macon conservative and former Army Ranger, to enter the race. According to insiders, Barnes didn't favor a move to Washington and Marshall didn't want to abandon his hard-fought seat. Even well-regarded South Georgia legislators, such as Sens. Tim Golden of Valdosta and Michael Meyer von Bremen of Albany, couldn't be persuaded to enter the ring.

Abramowitz suspects the pugilistic Jones may have helped discourage any comers. "By warding off a potentially stronger challenger, Jones' candidacy could be making it easier for Chambliss to win," he says.

Just how unelectable is Jones? Singling out just one of Mr. CEO's many peccadilloes – say, the now-dropped rape charges leveled by a female houseguest – is to cite a scandal so tawdry it would be enough to scuttle most political careers. And Jones' side of the story – that he was simply hosting a threesome – won't win many fans in places like Cordele and Chickamauga.

In fact, Jones' quest is so hopeless that it has spawned a well-traveled conspiracy theory positing that Jones visited Chambliss' Senate office last year to cook up a deal in which Jones would act as a spoiler candidate in return for a lucrative federal appointment. Cited as evidence is the fact that the DeKalb Democrat boasts an eye-opening number of Republican donors, such as arch-GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler.

"Unless Jones is simply delusional, it's the only explanation that makes any sense," says Abramowitz, laughing. "But there's no proof."

Jones did not respond to an interview request.

So far, the campaign contributions in the race underscore the Democrats' dimming hopes. According to the most recent campaign disclosures, released at the end of September, Chambliss has raised $7.7 million and still has nearly $4 million in the bank. Jones has collected $750,000, with $266,000 on hand. Cardwell has brought in $214,000, with $35,000 left over. And Knight has raised $161,000, of which $110,000 came out of his own pocket; he has $20,000 in cash on hand. Lanier, meanwhile, has not formally announced his candidacy.

Cardwell has made a point of saying he won't seek donations from political action committees, and argues that he doesn't need a vault full of contributions to mount a serious campaign.

"About 66 percent of Georgians watch Channel 2 and they know me as someone who holds the powerful accountable," he explains. "I've already got $6 million worth of name recognition and integrity in the bank, but you can't measure that."

Abramowitz, however, says the realities of today's political scene require a big bankroll. "Without $5 million or $6 million, you can't win a Senate race these days," he says. "Especially if you're a political unknown."

The Democrat with the best hope of reaching the general election is likely Jones, according to Abramowitz, considering the large percentage of black voters in the party's July 15 primary and the CEO's strengths as a dogged campaigner. Plus, he says Cardwell's calling card – a tougher position on immigration than Chambliss' revised stance is a surefire loser.

"Trying to run to Chambliss' right won't work in Georgia anymore with Democrats," Abramowitz says. "The hardcore conservatives who might have responded to that have already left the party."

Is there still time for a formidable Democrat to arise from the ashes of a dispirited and splintered state party? Let's just say Democrats aren't holding their breath and Republicans are breathing easier with every passing day.

Says former state GOP chairman Rusty Paul: "The door may not be closed yet, but it's squeaking shut."