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Dirty primary race could haunt Democrats this fall

Mark Taylor and Cathy Cox have been on a collision course since the day after Republican Sonny Perdue upset incumbent Democrat Roy Barnes to win the 2002 governor's race.

But not even the most astute political observers foresaw that the crash would be this ugly.

Now, with the lieutenant governor and secretary of state slinging mud at each other nonstop, Democrats have reason to worry that the winner of the July 18 gubernatorial primary will be in no condition to go up against a popular governor with a bulging campaign war chest.

"Perdue will be unscathed, and the winner of the Democratic primary will be bloody, battered and broke,'' said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

The attacks and counterattacks that have dominated the Cox-Taylor race this spring and summer have been too numerous to list in this space.

Suffice it to say they've been at it since the campaign cranked up in earnest in April, when Cox accused Taylor of false advertising in claiming to have sponsored the bill that created Georgia's HOPE Scholarship program, and his campaign revealed that her campaign manager had altered an Internet biography of Taylor to include the arrest of his son.

That incident prompted Cox to fire the staffer the day before she filed qualifying papers to run for governor.

Since then, Cox has accused Taylor of obtaining a "sweetheart'' loan from a bank in Albany, his hometown, to jump start his campaign.

Taylor has reiterated charges first brought by Republicans that Cox used tax dollars to promote her image as a gubernatorial candidate with a series of public service ads aimed at preventing investment fraud.

"The constant squabbling is benefiting us,'' said Derrick Dickey, spokesman for the Perdue campaign. "Mark and Cathy are showing Georgia voters who they really are.''

Bullock said the negative tone to the Cox-Taylor primary campaign could aid Republicans this fall in several ways. For one thing, the two are handing the GOP ammunition, he said.

"The problem when you have hard-hitting ads is some of the attacks are likely to stick, even on the winner,'' he said. "It lays a foundation for the negative attacks we can expect leading up to the November election.''

Bullock said the Democratic primary campaign has been so divisive that it may leave hard feelings in its wake.

"It may make it harder to rally together behind the winner,'' he said. "Even if the losing candidate throws his or her support behind the winner, some of the troops may say, 'I'm not going to support that scoundrel.'''

But Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said such fears may be overblown. He's not buying a gloom-and-doom scenario for the Democrats.

While the gubernatorial primary race has gotten rougher than anticipated, Swint argues that a hard-fought campaign was to be expected between two ambitious candidates whose political lives are at stake.

"Primaries are not fun for the party,'' he said. "But they're inevitable. ... If it's either Taylor or Cox, they'll be competitive in November.

"They're going to be dinged up a little bit, and the Republicans are going to use some of the same information against them that came out in the primary. But I don't think it's going to irreparably harm their chances.''

Indeed, a look back just six years shows that primaries can be extremely dirty affairs without crippling the winner.

Then-presidential candidate George W. Bush savaged Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the Republican primary in South Carolina, a strategy the Bush camp felt impelled to pursue after McCain had beaten their man in New Hampshire.

Bush won in South Carolina, turning the momentum around on his way to capturing the nomination and, later, the White House.

In this primary, Georgia Democrats simply believe the stakes are too high for party loyalists not to rally around the winner.

With Republicans already having taken control of the General Assembly and both U.S. Senate seats, the governor's race represents the best chance Democrats will have to reverse the GOP tide in the foreseeable future.

"Democrats are united in our efforts to defeat Sonny Perdue this fall,'' said state Democratic spokesman Emil Runge. "We're going to be united after the primary.''

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.