Michael Thurmond won't say yes, but he won't say no either. Even this evasiveness causes joy in some Democratic circles. They believe Labor Commissioner Thurmond, the first and only nonincumbent black candidate elected statewide in Georgia history, is ready to jump into the 2006 race for lieutenant governor.
We asked Thurmond, a Democrat, if he's ready to go for lieutenant governor. He was noncommittal in his answer on the phone, but he dispatched an e-mail that made a compelling case for a Thurmond candidacy.
Some key supporters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cathy Cox are gleeful at the prospect of Thurmond near the top of the ticket. "He energizes the Democratic base (meaning the black vote), and he has a long record of winning elections in majority-white jurisdictions," a well-placed Cox backer says.
Backers of Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, the other Democratic runner for governor, are not quite so overwhelmed.
They are unsure what Thurmond would bring to their effort to uproot GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue.
However, this much is certain: With Ralph Reed running as a Republican and Thurmond in the Democratic corner, the contest for lieutenant governor in 2006 could turn out to be the Super Bowl of Georgia politics, generating even more excitement than the battle for governor.
Alas, we may be getting carried away. Reed is far from a shoo-in as the Republican nominee. His name keeps popping up as a spear-carrier in the dark opera "Return of the K Street Godfather," starring super-lobbyist and accused felon Jack Abramoff.
Reed's political rival, state Sen. Casey Cagle of Gainesville, has surprised many with an early hard-hitting campaign that raises a sheaf of ethical questions regarding Reed's association with Abramoff. Reed's murky involvement with casino gambling interests just won't seem to go away.
Nevertheless, much of the smart money is still on Reed. He has national stature, access to a fat campaign war chest and superior political savvy. On the other hand, there's little doubt that disillusionment with Reed has set in. Another couple of Reed-connected Abramoff scandals might take Reed out of the race before it even starts.
Across the aisle, Democratic leaders have tried desperately to recruit a big name to run for lieutenant governor to shore up their chances for governor. Former Sen. Max Cleland considered an invitation and then said no thanks. An energetic attempt failed to persuade Taylor to run for re-election to his present post.
A couple of little-known (and liberal) Democrats are toying with running. They are getting little encouragement. In the eyes of many, a white liberal near the top of the ticket - one with little pull in the heavily Democratic black community - might sink the party's effort to recapture the governor's office.
Meanwhile, attention has turned to 52-year-old Thurmond, a political phenom who was elected labor commissioner in 1998 against two white Democrats and a white Republican.
Thurmond has a history of running well in heavily white jurisdictions. He was first elected to the state House from Clarke County in 1986. Thus, he became the first black legislator in the Southeast to represent a majority (66 percent) white district. In the 2002 election, as Republicans defeated Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and Sen. Cleland, Thurmond marched to an easy down-ballot victory for re-election as labor commissioner.
Some critics, including U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, have accused Thurmond publicly of "not being black enough." McKinney handed Thurmond his only political defeat when she beat him for a House seat in 1992.
She challenged Thurmond after he led opposition in the Legislature to McKinney's "max black" congressional and legislative redistricting plan. Thurmond predicted that her plan would accelerate a Republican takeover of the House delegation and both legislative chambers. He was right.
Gov. Zell Miller picked Thurmond in 1994 to head the state Division of Family and Children Services and gave him the task of directing Georgia's welfare-reform effort. Thurmond takes credit for moving 90,000 families from welfare to gainful employment.
In his spare time, Thurmond wrote "Freedom," a critically acclaimed history of slavery in Georgia from 1733 to 1865.
Gearing up for a possible bid for lieutenant governor, however, Thurmond eschews talk of his book and academic background. He knows that Georgians are more likely to vote for a candidate who is black than for a candidate of any race with known intellectual tendencies.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.