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Pin 'L' on the donkey

The liberal always loses. That is a firm rule of Georgia politics. A couple of rare exceptions exist from long ago. In today's political climate, however, labeling an adversary a liberal and making it stick offer a sure-fire formula for statewide victory.

With the L-rule in mind, let's take a look at the just-cranking-up Democratic primary for governor. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, who has been holding the donkey fort against the GOP for the past three years, will now turn his guns on his Democratic adversary, Secretary of State Cathy Cox.

For the first time in his political career, Taylor may even get help from Republicans. Both the GOP and Taylor's Democrats will try their darndest to pin "liberal" on Cox.

Whether she can avoid the moniker (some might say epithet) is yet to be determined. In this baseline assessment of the 2006 Democratic contest, Cox seems to have momentum. Taylor must slow her down to win his party's nomination.

Canny Republicans see her as potentially their most dangerous adversary. They'd like to polish her off in the Democratic primary. A couple of high-ranking Republicans even attempted to recruit her as a GOP candidate for lieutenant governor. That courtship occurred before the celebrated Ralph Reed made known his ambition for lieutenant governor.

Cox is expected to lay claim to a hefty war chest in the first major campaign-reporting period. As expected, the Bainbridge-based candidate has made inroads into Taylor's southern Georgia voter base. Astonishingly, she also is cutting into Gov. Sonny Perdue's money horde.

Some typically major Republican backers are already hedging their bets with contributions to Cox. Some diehard conservatives are irate at Perdue's appointment to the state Supreme Court of a relatively inexperienced black attorney with a Democratic voting record. They have quietly switched to Cox and brought along their checkbooks.

To be sure, Cox's first financial disclosure report, expected to be released this week, also will show contributions from women's rights organizations as well as gay and lesbian groups. Reports have surfaced that Emily's List, a national network of pro-choice Democratic women, will have major say-so in Cox's campaign. Cox's campaign crew vehemently denies such influence.

In this first measurable test of money strength for the 2006 elections, Cox's strategists are determined to prove their candidate can equal or even out-do the always well-heeled Taylor organization.

At this long-distance view of next year's election, Cox appears a good fit as Georgia's first woman governor - if she can avoid the dreaded L-sticker.

While most of the early attention may be focused on Cox, don't count out Taylor. He has repeatedly fought the liberal label and prevailed. He also has strong support in the black community - the most vital component of victory in any statewide Democratic primary.

He has paid his dues among blacks and other Democrats as well. He tried to help Gov. Zell Miller change the state flag in the mid-1990s.

He has fought efforts to weaken funding for education and health care for the indigent.

Taylor has withstood the humiliation of being stripped of his powers by Republicans and fought back.

He has become an effective Democratic attack dog, snarling publicly at the Republican leadership at every opportunity.

Because of his advocacy of education improvement and better health care, an outside observer is tempted to suggest Taylor is likely to trip over the L-word - except that in Georgia, our second-rate school system and lagging health care network are mainstream, bread-and-butter topics. With one possible exception, every governor since the 1960s has run on a strong education-improvement platform.

Ironically, the classic symptoms of fiscal liberalism - adopting record-high budgets and breathtaking public indebtedness, constructing more layers of government and proposing additional taxes - have infected the first Republican-controlled state government.

An aura of governmental secrecy and a no-dissent-allowed legislative leadership haven't exactly burnished the elephants' image.

President Bush's Peach State popularity is slipping, and renegade Zell Miller's "decency" rage against fellow Democrats is beginning to wear thin.

Still, Republicans may continue to hold the winning hand. They appear to have a long-term lock on the majority white vote, especially in the densely populated suburbs and growing exurbs where conservative church leaders generate voter enthusiasm for even mediocre candidates who promise to make war against all liberals.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160 or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net . His Web site is www.billshipp.com . His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.