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Tried-and-true method worked for Carter, Nunn and Perdue

What do Jimmy Carter, Sam Nunn and Sonny Perdue have in common?

Plenty when it comes to Georgia political campaigns.

In their successful bids for high office, all three rural Georgians ran as long-shot underdogs against established public figures with much larger war chests. This trio of unlikely sound-alikes appealed to the ultraconservative instincts of white male voters. All three ran against the mythic Atlanta power structure. Once they had achieved high office, Carter, Nunn and Perdue spent little time smoozing their core vote.

If I were in the political consulting business, I would advise Democrats Mark Taylor and Cathy Cox to review those past campaigns for guidance in their upcoming bids for governor. Some may disagree with the tactics, but they worked. All came from virtually the same playbook, updated slightly by Nunn and then Perdue to accommodate changing times.

Carter's 1970 bid for governor became the prototype for winning statewide office.

The former state senator abandoned any pretense of restraint. He ran hard to the political right, even sending his aides to distribute handbills at KKK rallies. At every opportunity, Carter jumped on the "liberal" Atlanta Constitution and painted his opponent, former Gov. Carl Sanders, as a tool of the "liberal" Atlanta power structure.

Carter embraced segregationist George Wallace and successfully solicited the help of the old racist-populist wool-hat crowd. Carter won with relative ease. In the blink of an eye, after his election, Carter transformed himself into the premier New South governor, a visionary model of moderation. After he made the cover of Time magazine, Carter never looked back as he ran for president.

Then along came Nunn. By 1972, Carter and his Senate appointee David Gambrell were the toast of so-called liberal Atlanta. Nunn, a backbench Georgia House member, seemed all but lost in a stampede of candidates seeking Dick Russell's old Senate seat, now held by Gambrell.

In a stroke of genius, Nunn became what Carter had been - the George Wallace guy. Nunn didn't play the race card as boldly as Carter, but - wink, wink - just about everybody knew (or thought they knew) where Nunn stood. He appeared to stand squarely against Carter's suddenly uppity "in" crowd.

Nunn, of course, won and became a towering figure in the U.S. Senate. He later demurred on seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, in part, because he thought rightly that someone would dig up his seemingly segregationist past.

By 2002, George Wallace was long gone from the American scene. However, the dark images he evoked were as alive as ever. Another seemingly slim-chance contender, state Sen. Sonny Perdue, threw his hat into the race as the non-Atlanta, non-establishment, white man's candidate. No, he never quite articulated that title, but (wink, wink again) we all knew.

Preserving the Confederate battle flag replaced George Wallace as Perdue's rallying point. Abandoning any hint of subtly, the GOP candidate introduced a new wrinkle into his campaign. He depicted the new "liberal establishment" incumbent, Roy Barnes, as a gold-chain-wearing, king-size rat. You heard right: r-a-t - as in filthy rodent, an international symbol used by communists and fascists to depict "the lowest of the low."

Perdue's campaign video described the Republican candidate as "sharp as a tack (and) not from Atlanta."

Now, after nearly four years in office, Perdue is in the same predicament Carter and Barnes were in, only more so. Perdue has become the quintessential big-city corporate governor. Also, he walked away from his base. The "flaggers," the 21st century Wallaceites, were left out in the cold.

So how will the 2006 underdog Democrat (Cox or Taylor) try to take down the big-business incumbent? Remember the rule exemplified by Carter, Nunn and Perdue when they were on the outside looking in: Stay to the right, and you can't go wrong.

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Perdue must be steamed, and you can't blame him. The internationally recognized Aspen Institute has chosen former Gov. Barnes to co-chair a nonpartisan commission to analyze and recommend changes in President Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind education program.

Tommy Thompson, former Wisconsin governor and Bush cabinet member, is the other co-chair. Funding for the inquiry will come from the Gates Foundation and similar sources.

As you may remember, Perdue defeated Barnes in 2002 in part because teachers opposed Barnes' tough, No Child Left Behind-like standards for accountability.

This in-depth look at national education is the equivalent of the Sept. 11 Commission with one big exception. Unlike the Sept. 11 probe, the education inquiry, including its chairs, apparently has the blessings of the Bush White House.

As governor, Barnes modeled much of his Georgia education plan after then-Gov. Bush's Texas program. Despite their partisan differences, Barnes and Bush maintained cordial relations.

Meanwhile, back in Georgia, Perdue struggles on the school front. He publicly brags on improvements in education even as his critics say he is cutting funding to the bone and diminishing local control. One wonders if anyone in Washington ran Barnes' appointment past Perdue before it was announced.

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.