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High-stakes election year dawns for Georgia

ATLANTA - The election year that kicks off today in Georgia won't feature a U.S. Senate race for the first time in a dozen years.

But no one will miss it, not even political junkies.

With Republicans defending the Governor's Mansion and both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since the 19th century, there will be enough at stake in state contests to interest Georgia voters to make up for a relative lull at the national level.

It all starts with the governor's office. Not only will Sonny Perdue be trying to become the first Republican governor ever reelected in Georgia, but the state's two top Democrats are vacating their offices to challenge him, giving the GOP a strong shot to capture the posts of lieutenant governor and secretary of state.

"(The Democrats are) putting it all on one roll of the dice,'' said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

Democrats, historically Georgia's governing party, got into their predicament through a series of defeats that began with Perdue's upset of former Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002. Within days of the election, four re-elected Senate Democrats turned Republican, giving the GOP control of the upper chamber.

Then in 2004, Republicans swept into power in the House while picking up additional seats in the Senate, leaving the party in complete control of both the governorship and General Assembly.

It's going to be difficult for the Democrats to stop the bleeding by regaining a majority in either legislative chamber.

Maps favor GOP

As a result of a lawsuit filed by Republicans, a judicial panel in 2004 redrew House and Senate district boundaries Democratic leaders had designed when they controlled the legislature to elect their candidates.

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University, said the current maps have left Republicans too strong to allow Democrats to topple them from power.

"The way the districts are drawn now, the Republicans have broader support in more districts,'' he said.

An out-of-reach General Assembly brings the Democrats back to the gubernatorial election.

"The Democrats really need a huge victory in the governor's race,'' Black said. "That would put them back to being a major player in Georgia politics, which they're not now.''

For their part, Democrats say they're emphasizing the governor's office for reasons other than the political dynamics of the Legislature.

Indeed, state Democratic spokesman Emil Runge said Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox are so willing to give up their current posts to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nod because they see Perdue as vulnerable.

For one thing, there's the widespread perception that more Georgians voted against Barnes four years ago than voted for Perdue.

Barnes had alienated large groups of voters, including teachers, defenders of the old Georgia flag with its prominent Confederate battle emblem and opponents of the ill-fated Northern Arc highway project in Atlanta's northern suburbs.

Dems stress economy,

education

Runge said Perdue hasn't helped himself since taking office by repeatedly cutting the state's education budget and failing to respond aggressively enough to the job losses in Georgia brought on by an economic downturn.

"When you've got a tough economy and huge cuts to education ... both (Cox and Taylor) feel they have a great opportunity to win,'' Runge said.

But Georgia Republican Chairman Alec Poitevint said he doesn't buy the line that Perdue didn't win on his own merits in 2002.

"Having traveled in that campaign ... there was an absolute energy for Sonny Perdue,'' Poitevint said. "People who looked at him and his wife, Mary, saw they were people they wanted in the Governor's Mansion.''

Poitevint said Perdue is making progress on education and has made job creation a major focus, spreading his business recruitment efforts across the state - not just in the Atlanta area - and putting a heavy emphasis on foreign companies.

With their strong name recognition and fund-raising abilities, either Taylor or Cox would be well positioned to give Perdue a stiff challenge this fall.

Complicating the Democrats' prospects in the General Assembly, however, is the likelihood that many of the party's veterans will choose to retire this year rather than seek reelection to what is likely to remain a Republican-controlled body.

"I can easily see some of their folks saying, 'It was a lot of fun when we were in the majority, but I don't want to stick around and be part of the scenery,''' Bullock said.

Bullock said there also could be more party switching among Democratic lawmakers.

"It's not clear that they've hit bottom yet,'' he said.

But Runge said Democrats can win on the issues.

"I think folks in Georgia don't like what they're seeing from the Republican leadership with the economy and education,'' he said. "Based on the kitchen table issues folks make decisions on, we feel we've got some opportunities.''