In Georgia, economic woes take back seat to other issues

Remember Democratic consultant James Carville's historic admonition to Bill Clinton's political staff to stay on message? "It's the economy, stupid" has become part of the lore of all major American political campaigns. Carville was right about the campaign of 1992. Indeed, the rotten economy largely determined the election's outcome. Clinton won.

"It's the economy, stupid" has been viewed ever after as the magical political phrase that delivers victory whenever and wherever it is used effectively.

The "economy" campaign notion certainly sounds logical. However, politics and logic are seldom related.

In statewide Georgia elections, an "economy campaign" usually doesn't resonate. (Georgians endured the Great Depression yet voted repeatedly for state candidates who mainly promised continued racial segregation.)

If the economy issue worked, Gov. Sonny Perdue would be bracing himself for trouble. In the past months, Georgia has experienced the largest percentage drop in household income in the nation. Our unemployment rate is at its highest level in more than 11 years, and for the first time since 1989 the Peach State is experiencing a jobless rate higher than the national average. In the past 12 months, Georgia has seen an increase of more than 113,000 jobs. However, we now have 43,000 more folks unemployed than a year ago - the second-highest jobless jump in the country. Only Katrina-ravaged Louisiana was worse.

On the other hand, the administration has received a shot of good news in recent days. Natural gas prices have fallen, at least temporarily. And state tax revenues are up substantially for October.

Those numbers may have federal labor statisticians bouncing off the wall. Average voters - at least the ones with jobs - don't seem to care. In good times and bad, polls show Perdue with a reasonably high approval rating and running comfortably ahead of Democrats Cathy Cox and Mark Taylor. The latest Zogby poll, published in the Wall Street Journal at the end of September, gives Perdue an eight-point lead over Cox and nearly 10 points over Taylor.

In retrospect, not a single modern contest for Georgia governor has turned on the electorate's view of the general economy.

In 2002, Roy Barnes lost the governor's office because he changed the state flag and tried to make it easier to fire incompetent teachers. The economy during Barnes' tenure had seldom been better.

Georgia was seen as the high-tech Promised Land when Gov. Zell Miller fought to win a second term and save his political life in 1994. He barely won re-election on the strength of a harsh "two strikes and out" law-and-order platform and a promise to crack down on welfare fraud. His attempt to change the state flag nearly cost him the election. The economy was hardly mentioned. High-tech, shmigh-tech, who cared?

Miller first won election in 1990 by promising a statewide lottery, an idea that had been strictly verboten until he came along. Again, the economy rarely came up, except in terms of how much money state-sponsored gambling would put into the public coffers.

Before Miller, Joe Frank Harris won on a pledge to upgrade education and maintain stability in government. George Busbee prevailed because many voters saw him as the sane alternative to a zany Lester Maddox bent on returning to the governor's mansion.

We could keep retracing history here, but you get the idea. Giving voters the latest jobless figures or belaboring a drop in median household income doesn't translate into voter support unless a whole lot of citizens suddenly feel their individual pocketbooks grow lighter.

If the economy won't be the marquee issue in 2006, what will be?

Taking another cue from history, the No. 1 item may be one that we have not even considered yet. For instance, who would have thought in 2001, a year before his failed re-election bid, that changing the state flag and teacher accountability would become career-ending issues for Barnes? Who could predict that a guy dressed as a gigantic rat would be the most effective symbol used by Perdue to portray his opponent? In 1989 who dreamed that Miller could ride into the governor's office in the middle of the Bible belt on a promise to provide Georgia with state-sponsored gambling? Or that a cute, photogenic infant crawling on the Capitol's carpet would endear Taylor to voters, no matter how harshly his opponents spoke of him?

As of now, the big topics shaping up for the governor's race appear to be:

•Immigration: Trying to stop the flow of immigrants into Georgia has the ring of a winning campaign plank. However, Republicans are generally blamed for the problem. Democrats are fearful of losing Latino votes on the issue. And some of the state's biggest employers, who are dependent on migrant labor, are less than enthusiastic.

•Education: Schools and teachers are always in the mix. What will the candidates promise on that front? Will they pledge to restore high levels of spending? Of course. How about demands for more teacher accountability? Not on your life.

•Health care: What could a candidate say about such an issue? He or she may promise improvements. However, when the candidate starts explaining, the topic becomes so complicated that no one understands it.

The truth is, the biggest issue in 2006 could be an almost silent topic relating to whether men are ready to support a woman for governor - or, more important, whether women will support a woman for governor. If that is true, the substantive campaign material won't matter much. It will simply become filler for TV commercials and luncheon fundraisers.

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.