Democrats could have a fight against an unknown

What is the most career-crushing event that could befall Democratic candidates for governor Mark Taylor or Cathy Cox before next year's election?

Answer: A primary election.

No, no - not a Democratic primary between the two, but a Republican primary. A spirited GOP opponent for Gov. Sonny Perdue could turn out to be a promotion spoiler for either Democrat Cox or Taylor.

No matter who wins the Democratic primary, he or she is depending on Sonny Perdue to be the Republican nominee.

All Democratic guns are already aimed at Perdue. The first Democratic Party ads for the 2006 campaigns are beginning to pop up on the Internet and in e-mails. They zero in on Perdue's efforts to take money away from the HOPE scholarship program, while spending a bundle renovating the governor's mansion. The ads remind voters that Perdue once opposed HOPE scholarships and the lottery. The ad blitz against him has just begun.

No other Republican is mentioned. Perdue is villain No. 1.

In the minds of the Democratic brain trust, the face of Perdue is the Brand X trademark for the Georgia GOP. The Democrats possess real poll numbers to suggest Perdue is a drag on the Republican Party.

Many of the Georgians reportedly most unhappy with Perdue's performance are disappointed Republicans - people who would vote for a viable GOP alternative candidate in a primary, if such a person existed.

As of now, no anti-Perdue Republican candidate is in sight. The GOP is stuck with Perdue.

Secretary of State Cathy Cox is depending on energizing anti-Perdue Republicans and independents to vote in the Democratic primary to give her the nomination and, ultimately, wrest the governor's post from the incumbent. Lt. Gov. Taylor is also banking on Republican help in the primary, though to a lesser extent than Cox.

Remember that next year's election will be different. The only marquee contest is for governor. For the first time since 1994, Georgia will not have a U.S. Senate race on the ballot to compete for attention with the battle for governor. Most of the congressional elections will be humdrum, incumbent-dominated affairs.

Few, if any primary contests, are in sight in the down-ballot races for minor state offices.

The Republicans' legislative leadership is mostly an uninspiring lot, not likely to motivate a rousing voter turnout. A couple of the best-known state lawmakers are expected to leave the General Assembly to go for Congress or seek other state offices.

So that leaves Gov. Perdue all but alone to battle the Democratic nominee, whose allies will transcend party affiliation.

Some Republican leaders are well aware of the uphill battle they face. After struggling for 130 years to win a governor's election, they could be on the verge of losing that high office again, after only one term. It might be a long time before they get an opportunity to return. So they seek the ATP candidate - an Alternative To Perdue in the Republican primary.

Who might they persuade to take on the governor as a Republican in hopes of spoiling the Democrats' best-laid plans?

Former Congressman Mac Collins once appeared a likely candidate for governor. However, he is expected to seek a return to Congress in 2006 in a newly configured district. He also proved to be a letdown as a statewide candidate for the Senate last year.

Premier political consultant Ralph Reed, an announced candidate for lieutenant governor, has been approached about going for governor. For now, however, he has promised to stay put in the No. 2 race. Besides, the national media's war drums are growing louder regarding Reed's multimillion-dollar fees for dabbling in Indian-run casinos in Texas.

Former Cobb County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne says he's ready to go again. His failure to gain traction among voters in the 2002 primary appears to rule him out.

Congressman Lynn Westmoreland seems ready-made to take on Perdue. Once a great booster of the present governor, Westmoreland found himself battling a Perdue-supported candidate in last summer's congressional primary. As former minority leader of the state House, Westmoreland also almost went into shock when Gov. Perdue came out foursquare in favor of raising state taxes. Westmoreland, seen by some as a natural party leader, may feel lost and unappreciated as a freshman House member in a Georgia delegation that does little more than rubber-stamp President Bush's agenda. Why not come home and go for the top?

Despite this hot-stove-season speculation, Democrats Cox and Taylor continue to sleep soundly, feeling all but certain that one or the other will face Gov. Perdue on Election Day, 2006. They have yet to contemplate the sudden change in political tactics that would be required if their opponent turned out to be ABS - Anybody But Sonny.

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