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A second act in politics is no sure thing

ATLANTA

If Max Burns and Mac Collins succeed next year in comeback bids for Congress, they'll join a small club of second-act politicians.

The former Republican congressmen find themselves on the sidelines for different reasons. Burns, a former Sylvania professor of computing, won a close race in 2002 over Champ Walker in the heavily Democratic 12th district that ran from Athens to Augusta to Savannah.

Despite becoming freshman class president and getting extra attention from the national party, Burns wasn't able to overcome demographics or Democratic challenger John Barrow, who was a dramatically better candidate than Walker.

Now, Burns is raising money to reclaim the seat from Barrow.

Collins, on the other hand, is the owner of a trucking company who had parlayed a seat in the General Assembly into a seat in the U.S. House. While Burns was defeated as a freshman, Collins kept his seat for six terms and only gave it up to pursue the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, losing to Johnny Isakson.

Collins is tapping into his long list of supporters to fund a challenge in the 3rd District against Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon, who is in his second term. Changes in the district boundaries mean that part of the new district will include some of the area Collins once represented.

Burns is also hoping the revised boundaries will help his chances. The 12th will no longer include Athens, Barrow's hometown.

The demographics of neither the reconfigured 3rd nor the new 12th make them Republican, but they are competitive for Republicans with money and some name recognition.

Still, a comeback is a rare thing.

Last year, only three of the 10 former legislators trying it succeeded. Most folks would grab an umbrella with a 30 percent chance of rain.

Ex-Sen. Mack Mattingly couldn't pull it off when he ran against former Gov. Zell Miller in the special election called after the death of Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga. Mattingly, the state's first GOP senator since Reconstruction, lasted only a single term, 1981-86, before his comeback attempt in 2000.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, D-Marietta, couldn't do it in 2002 in a district designed for him by his friend, then-Gov. Roy Barnes. Unseated by Bob Barr in 1994, Darden tried to take the seat Barr left open because it didn't look safe enough for a Republican after Barnes redrew the boundaries.

Yet, Darden lost in the primary to millionaire Roger Kahn, and Republican Phil Gingrey ended up with the seat in the general election.

On the other hand, some notable exceptions to the rule make comebacks worth attempting.

Barnes and Isakson made comebacks after losing the 1990 gubernatorial race. Each returned to the General Assembly and waited for a better time to tackle another statewide race. For Barnes, the wait was another six years before winning the governor's mansion.

Isakson thought the timing was right in 1996 when he again gave up a legislative seat for a statewide run, that time for U.S. Senate, losing the primary to Guy Millner. Isakson came back again when Newt Gingrich resigned from Congress, winning a crowded non-partisan special election.

U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Decatur, pulled off a comeback last year when she won the congressional seat she'd been ousted from by Denise Majette. When Majette gave it up after a single term to run, inexplicably, for the U.S. Senate against Isakson, McKinney won a six-way primary without a runoff.

Even state Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta, was able to come back after losing in the same election where Burns defeated Walker's son. His federal conviction in June has left his seat open, setting up a comeback attempt by former state Rep. Ben Allen, D-Augusta.

Comebacks are more likely to succeed in open seats. But Collins and Burns don't have that luxury. The next best thing to an open seat is a freshman like Barrow or at least a two-term incumbent like Marshall.

Incumbents normally have an edge in name recognition and access to sophisticated donors. Former members of Congress have those same advantages, though.

The bigger hurdle to overcome is voter inertia. People tend to stick with the incumbent unless they are given a powerful reason for a change, such as a scandal or unacceptable voting record.

For Collins and Burns to win, they'll have to attack early and often, making for grand entertainment for political junkies and dreary television for everyone else. But their encores would be worth watching if they pull it off.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at walter.jones@morris.com or 404- 589-8424.