Two Georgia seats eyed by national GOP

If you want to know where the action will be in next year's Georgia congressional races, look no further than Dick Cheney's schedule.

The vice president will travel to the state this week - a year and change before Election Day 2006 - to raise money for two fellow Republicans itching to reclaim seats in the House.

Former U.S. Rep. Mac Collins of Jackson, who served a dozen years in Congress before losing to Johnny Isakson in last year's Republican Senate primary, is looking to unseat two-term Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon.

And Max Burns of Sylvania wants a rematch with freshman Rep. John Barrow, D-Athens, who ran Burns out of office in 2004.

"We were thrilled to get him this early," said Tim Baker, Burns' campaign manager, of Cheney's scheduled appearance on behalf of his candidate. "It shows leadership is needed in this district, and the administration needs someone they can work with."

As usual since Republicans captured control of the House in 1994, the GOP doesn't have much room for error. With Democrats holding 205 of the chamber's 435 seats, they will need a net gain of only 13 seats next year to regain power.

Thus, every seat likely to be competitive takes on national significance.

In Georgia, Republicans look like a safe bet to hold onto six seats the GOP has long occupied, while Democrats appear to have a strong lock on four other seats.

The 11th District seat in northwest Georgia held by Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, which had leaned Democratic, was redrawn this year by the Republican-controlled General Assembly to be much safer for the GOP.

That leaves Marshall's 8th District seat, a mostly rural swath of Georgia stretching from near the Florida line to Newton County, and the 12th District seat held by Barrow, a more compact chunk of eastern Georgia running from the Savannah area north to Augusta and west to Milledgeville.

Those districts, too, have undergone substantial redesigns at the hands of Republican mapmakers, so much so that national GOP strategists have their sights set on them.

"These two seats are probably the most likely pickup opportunities for the Republican Party," said Ryan Johnson, Collins' campaign manager.

The two Republican managers point to two types of numbers as reasons for optimism: election results and money.

President Bush carried the new district Marshall will be forced to run in next year much more comfortably than the more compact district he now represents.

Bush narrowly prevailed in the new 12th District as well, a far cry from the 45 percent support he posted in the current 12th, an elongated district drawn by Democrats in 2001 when they controlled the Legislature.

An extra wrinkle is that Republicans drew Barrow out of the 12th District. Federal law allows members of Congress to live outside of the districts they represent, but it can be a political liability to do so.

The other numbers are of the fundraising variety. Collins out-raised Marshall during the third quarter, according to reports the two filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The same can't be said for Burns, but the former congressman had a respectable $306,000 in his campaign treasury as of Sept. 30, according to his report.

Still, both Marshall and Barrow held a two-to-one lead in cash on hand over their GOP challengers.

And, according to their campaigns, the Democratic incumbents' advantages don't stop there.

Even with a district redrawn by Republicans, Marshall has represented a much larger percentage of voters in the new 8th than Collins, said Marshall spokesman Douglas Moore. Also, 70 percent of the new district is in the Macon TV market, Moore said.

"These are people who know Jim Marshall," the spokesman said.

Barrow also should be familiar to constituents in his new district. Only 18 percent of the redesigned 12th is new territory for him, and much of that is inside Marshall's current district.

"I'm excited at the opportunity to represent some terrific counties that we'll be picking up from Congressman Jim Marshall," Barrow said in a statement.

While the new 12th appears to be slightly more Republican - if you look at Bush's numbers - it's still Democrat-friendly. Former Gov. Roy Barnes drew 54 percent of the vote in Barrow's new district in his 2002 loss to Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, while Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox - both Democrats - did even better.