McKinney: The elephants' helper

Republicans need Cynthia McKinney. The DeKalb County congresswoman defines the Democratic Party just the way the GOP likes it: strident, unresponsive and way out in left field. At least that's the way Republicans want voters to perceive Democrats.

For the Republican National Committee, McKinney shines as a point of light in a mostly dismal national picture. Her loose-cannon behavior provides ammunition for GOP strategists.

To prove how much the elephants cherish McKinney, the Republican-led Legislature and the Bush Justice Department reconfigured her congressional district in a way that increased the strength of her base. The GOP-mandated changes saved her from outright defeat two weeks ago.

A conspiracy theory has developed around McKinney's return to power in 2004.

The theory goes like this: Georgia GOP leaders induced Denise Majette to abandon her just-won House seat and mount an almost silly bid for the Senate. Republicans succeeded in removing Majette as an obstacle to McKinney's return from political oblivion. Majette said she ran for the Senate on advice from God. Her dismal showing indicates her counsel came from elsewhere.

Majette defeated McKinney two years earlier after McKinney suggested President George W. Bush had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.

An elephantine conspiracy to resurrect McKinney seems plausible. Republicans feel comfortable when Democrat McKinney is stirring up things. More than any other Georgia Democrats, McKinney is a lightning rod for bad press.

Her recent encounter with a Capitol cop seeking to identify her is vintage McKinney - lots of incensed yelling on national TV. In addition, as a House member, she constantly engages international issues while letting slide home-district concerns. She is a champion tilter at windmills.

Republican strategists were unprepared when McKinney nearly lost the Democratic primary in July. They are counting on her for help in November. Despite serious personal problems, former DeKalb commissioner Hank Johnson may defeat McKinney in the Aug. 8 runoff.

In an Atlanta Press Club-sponsored debate Monday night, a subdued McKinney pasted Johnson with a litany of charges regarding his bad credit and close ties with developers. Johnson was unfazed, though his responses were less than compelling.

The specter of McKinney losing is driving the far right nuts. Turn on your radio. Spoon-fed spin doctors are obsessing on McKinney. They are determined to squeeze the last drop of benefit from her negative image.

Even before the primary, GOP talkers tried to wrap McKinney around the neck of gubernatorial challenger Mark Taylor and any other Democrats who posed a threat.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, their party leaders lack the wherewithal to counter GOP attempts to attach McKinney's image to their candidates.

If McKinney wins the runoff, the Republican direct mail campaign will center on her in the fall. You'll see more photos of McKinney than Perdue in the GOP's election literature.

The McKinney soap opera is further evidence of a critically ill Georgia Democratic Party.

In the 2006 election cycle, McKinney is the towering figure in the once all-powerful Peach State party that gave us Jimmy Carter, Sam Nunn, Richard Russell and Andrew Young.

Carter remains the only president to make substantive progress toward peace in the Middle East. (Formidable Egypt would certainly be involved in the bloody fighting in the Middle East, if not for Carter's Camp David Accords.) Nunn became a foremost authority on national defense. Russell was as influential as any senator in history. He might have been elected president were it not for his Old South roots. Civil rights hero and former U.N. ambassador Young is reduced to doing his duty for the party by trying to rescue Cynthia.

McKinney stands as a reminder that Georgia Democrats have lost most of their bench. Promising candidates are not appearing on the horizon. Secretary of State Cathy Cox's nascent career in higher office collapsed when she lost her bid for governor. Gov. Roy Barnes was ready for the national stage until Sonny Perdue brought him down. Zell Miller, of course, claims to remain a Democrat though he endorsed Republicans and took a Republican ballot in the primary. If he is indeed still a Democrat, he is a delusional one.

Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, a likely shoo-in for re-election, is a positive force among Democrats. However, his minority status hampers his upward career movement.

U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, a conservative Christian and genuine war hero, could be the kind of Democrat who rebuilds the party. We'll see. Marshall faces a serious GOP challenge in November from former lawmaker Mac Collins.

No matter what happens in the November election, Democrats will have another shot at a comeback prize in 2008 - the Senate seat now held by Republican Saxby Chambliss.

Yet who among the presently recognized Democrats would agree to take on Chambliss, knowing that the irrepressible McKinney might erupt at any moment to give the GOP another punch line?

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.