The last two standing

Vernon Jones and Jim Martin face long odds in running for Chambliss' Senate seat

Wednesday July 23, 2008 12:04 am EDT

Georgia Democrats may feel over the next few weeks as if they're watching Bugs Bunny battle Elmer Fudd for the right to take on U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

In an Aug. 5 primary runoff, you've got Vernon Jones, the flamboyant and polarizing DeKalb County CEO who snagged 40 percent of the votes in last week's primary. After coming in first, he jet-setted from Atlanta to Macon and Albany to rouse up support outside his metro Atlanta stomping grounds.

Then there's former state Rep. Jim Martin, a folksy workhorse and country boy in city clothes. Martin, who also has been state Human Resources commissioner, is squeaky clean and received beaucoup cash when he entered the race, but lacks the fire you'd normally expect in someone itching to unseat a well-financed Republican who's ahead in the polls.

Though both candidates are experienced campaigners, either would face steep odds in a race against Chambliss.

Jones, who's helmed DeKalb for nearly eight years, is trailed by a long list of controversies. He's running as a "conservative Democrat." But a grand jury has been questioning the county's administration of contracts under his leadership that allegedly were poorly managed and led to cost overruns.

The county also has what some might call a "crime" problem. Murders in DeKalb yo-yoed since he took office in 2001, but have risen significantly in the past four years. The tally hit 109 in 2007, up from a low of 22 in 2004. Other crimes have risen as well. The county has rifled through four police chiefs during Jones' two terms.

And, of course, there's the notorious menage a trois. In 2004, Jones was accused by a female acquaintance of rape, which police documents say grew out of an encounter with two women. Jones told police the liaison was "consensual," and the plaintiff later withdrew the charges. But the story isn't exactly the stuff of a traditional family platform.

Chambliss – who swift-boated war hero and then-Sen. Max Cleland in a 2002 contest by implying Cleland was buddies with Saddam Hussein – isn't above exploiting an opponent's vulnerabilities.

After he turned down an interview request, Jones' campaign was e-mailed a list of questions on Friday asking about his record as DeKalb CEO and how he matches up against Chambliss.

"We're very excited about the 200,000 voters that supported my campaign statewide, and we look forward to continue spreading our message of bread-and-butter issues that connect with mainstream Georgians," he responded. That was it.

Martin says he'll focus on another Jones weakness: "The basic difference between Vernon and me is Vernon is proud of the fact that he voted twice for President Bush. For us, the comparison is obvious. I'm the Democrat candidate, running as a Democrat, to make Saxby Chambliss explain why he's been a rubber stamp for the Bush administration and its disastrous policies. It'd be difficult for Vernon to make that argument since he voted for that administration."

But Martin has taken his own hits during this campaign. A longtime favorite of intown liberals, he was derided before the primary by third-place finisher Dale Cardwell as a "convenient-crat," who only ran after others pushed him to take on Chambliss. Even supporters have said off-the-record that they've been disappointed by Martin's lack of energy after he entered the race in March.

Martin, who lost a race for lieutenant governor in 2006 but ran ahead of the Democratic field, says his subdued mien can be a strength.

"What voters are seeing is the real Jim Martin," the candidate says with a laugh. "And they know that. That resonates with voters. That may not impress somebody at first glance. But I am who I am, I've got the record that supports that, and people know they can believe me and trust me to do what I say I'm going to do. And frankly I'd prefer to have that kind of persona than being a flashy person no one can trust."

Personalities aside, a big question is who'll turn out for the runoff. University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock says runoffs end 70 percent of the time with the same results: Turnout is much lower than in the primary, but whoever received the most votes the first go-round usually gets them again.

But Jones' six-point margin was relatively tight, Bullock says, so this race could be different, Add to that the fact that black voters, who form the base of Jones' support, typically show up for runoffs in smaller numbers than whites.

Martin also picked up endorsements from Cardwell and fourth-place finisher Rand Knight. While Bullock cautions that endorsements don't necessarily translate into votes, Cardwell's and Knight's support could be an indication that their backers feel the same way.

Initial hopes among the party establishment that Martin would raise a sizable amount of cash haven't fully borne out. With $175,884 in the bank, he has a slight cash advantage. Jones has $150,366.

The problem for either Democrate is that the Republican incumbent is sitting on a $4 million war chest. While Democrats around the country hope to pick up five or six Senate seats, national party officials seem more likely to shift resources into races where victory seems more likely.

"Georgia is probably at best on a third tier where Democrats are likely to make an investment," Bullock says. "And with limited resources, that probably means you don't get as much."

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