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Democrats must look for better players

The Georgia Democratic Party has the same problem as the Falcons, the Yellow Jackets and the Bulldogs. It needs better players.

Unlike the footballers, the Democrats can't draft college kids or make trades to upgrade. They have to recruit the old-fashioned way: find newbies who are mean and hungry and cruising for a fight - candidates tired of being told they are liberal, godless and unpatriotic.

Democratic leaders say they are ready for a wholesale makeover of the state party, but where do they start?

That's easy. Start with new blood. Start with a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss is up for re-election in 2008. He will have barrels of campaign money and plenty of help from his party. He will run concurrently with the presidential candidates.

The GOP presidential nominee (even if he is a Massachusetts Mormon) is likely to be the overweening Peach State favorite. The Democratic nominee won't even bother to visit.

Two years before the election, Chambliss looks 20 feet tall. It doesn't matter. Democrats must find a real challenger. If they fail to recruit and nominate an acceptable, non-nut candidate for the Senate, then the Democrats are finished as a genuine power for a generation.

"OK, big shot, name a Democrat who can beat Saxby or even stay in the ring until the ballots are counted," you say.

How about Jim Butler? A leading trial lawyer based in Columbus, Butler has built a reputation as a fire-eating battler against water and air polluters, greedy developers and crooked officials. Furtive Gov. Sonny Perdue and the power-hungry Buckhead crowd detest Butler.

With a little pushing, Butler might jump into the race. He recently wrote a letter to leading Democrats, outlining a strategy for bringing the party back to life. One other thing: Butler has access to big money. That is a really important asset.

What's the downside to a Butler candidacy? Let's see: No one really knows who he is, or what his deep-down personal beliefs are. However, such a blank slate could turn out to be a plus. It would give smart Democratic operatives something to work with.

No one knew much about Jimmy Carter until he exploded on the scene as a full-fledged candidate for governor. The made-to-order Carter was precisely the kind of leader we thought we wanted.

What else is problematic? For starters, Butler is a trial lawyer. Everybody hates trial lawyers, so they say. But Chambliss was a trial lawyer before he went to Washington. Other trial bar members include ex-Gov. Roy Barnes, House Speaker Glenn Richardson, former Speaker Tom Murphy, former Sens. Wyche Fowler and David Gambrel, former Govs. Carl Sanders and the late George Busbee. If we dislike trial lawyers so much, why do we keep electing them?

Suppose Butler says he's not interested. Where do Democrats look next? Conventional wisdom holds that the Democrats have no bench. In fact, despite their recent setbacks in Georgia, Democrats have a reasonably impressive reserve squad.

Consider these possibilities:

• U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall: A former Macon mayor, decorated Vietnam War hero and Mercer professor, he recently won re-election against journeyman politician Mac Collins in a very tight race. Keep this in mind: Marshall defeated Collins in a district drawn by Collins' aides and guaranteed by Republican lawmakers to be Democrat proof.

• U.S. Rep John Barrow: He also survived a full-scale Republican onslaught featuring mountains of money, two visits by President Bush to campaign against him and a custom-made congressional district, also certified to be a Democrat killer.

• Attorney General Thurbert Baker: Being black, he would have difficulty winning the Senate seat, but he is well liked by both white and black Georgians. He could serve as a lightning rod to turn out blacks and Hispanics in record numbers to help Democrats win other offices, besides the Senate. Ditto for Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, the first black ever to win a constitutional office statewide as a non-incumbent. (In other words, he was not appointed by a governor to his job before he ran for it.)

Not every high-profile Democrat could run for the Senate, but he or she could cobble effective campaigns for other offices.

Additional Democratic standouts include Reps. Sanford Bishop and John Lewis, Democratic legislative leaders DuBose Porter and Tim Golden, state Sen. David Adelman, Rep. Kathy Ashe and Sen. Gloria Butler.

All right, I admit it. The Democratic bench is hardly all-star material. There doesn't appear to be a Sam Nunn in the bunch. Remember this, however: When Georgia's most effective senator Sam Nunn appeared in his first candidate "beauty contest" way back in 1972, no one saw a Sam Nunn. He looked just like another backbench Democrat who would never get off the ground.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at bshipp@bellsouth.net.

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