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Perdue's GOP challenger can't get anyone to pay attention

Last spring, Ray McBerry shelled out a $3,867.09 qualification fee as the sole Republican primary challenger to Gov. Sonny Perdue. As soon as he put his cash down, McBerry turned into the Unknown Candidate. Today he might as well wear a paper bag over his head. He might get more attention.

The official Georgia Republican Web site omits his name from its roll of GOP candidates.

Georgia Public Television reports repeatedly that Gov. Sonny Perdue has "no real Republican opposition." McBerry is never mentioned, even as unreal opposition. An Atlanta radio station apologizes to McBerry after it reports Perdue is running unopposed.

The Atlanta Press Club, arbiter of statewide political debates for the past 40 years, fails to invite McBerry to participate in its forum. A press clubber describes McBerry as a "fringe candidate." Even so, the press club calls on virtually unknown Democratic candidates to join Cathy Cox and Mark Taylor in debate.

Georgia Right to Life bestows joint endorsements on every statewide Republican candidate, except McBerry. He says he filled out a questionnaire that was in total agreement with the organization's political positions.

A McBerry campaign aide, Michele Hamlin, writes a panelist on Fox 5 TV's Georgia Gang: "Please stop mentioning that either Cathy Cox or Mark Taylor will be running against Sonny Perdue in November. It is not a sure thing that he will win (the primary). Ray McBerry may be an underdog, but he is a greyhound and in the race to win. ... He also is a lot more attractive than Cox, Taylor or Perdue on a multiple of fronts."

The worst blow of all: McBerry says he can't even hire a lawyer to represent his campaign. "I guess they're afraid," he says.

So what's wrong with McBerry? The 38-year-old TV advertising salesman says he is bewildered at being shut out.

His Web site, GeorgiaFirst.org, has been swamped with visitors and is among the most popular political sites in the state, McBerry says. Volunteers have handed out 150,000 McBerry pamphlets and posted 20,000 signs across the state. He starts a modest radio advertising campaign this weekend, and he has participated in a few radio interviews.

To middle-of-the-road voters (if there are any left), McBerry's strident stands against immigrants, metro Atlanta development and the use of eminent domain seem a little - well, uh - over the top. Some say they contain a faint scent of the white-sheet crowd.

Yet they are no more extreme than several positions taken by mainstream national GOP leaders and our own Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. A native of Henry County and single parent of a 4-year-old son, McBerry claims to be "first and foremost" a states-rights advocate.

He also is an ardent flagger. That label may be the reason he is shunned like bird flu. Politicians of both parties as well as the media have had about as much flag fussing as they can stand.

Four years ago, Perdue used the state flag issue as the central theme of his successful campaign against Democratic incumbent Roy Barnes. McBerry and his flagger friends say Perdue promised a vote on the 1956 Georgia flag with its Confederate battle emblem. Perdue was elected. The 1956 flag was left out of the flag referendum.

Says McBerry: "Perdue did lie to get Southern heritage supporters to work for him, and I want to give Georgians the right to vote on the 1956 flag."

The Unknown Candidate might as well as be trumpeting a return to the gold standard. For most folks, the flag debate is ancient history. They don't want to hear about it. A few flaggers still show up to demonstrate at Perdue rallies, but their hearts don't appear to be in it. McBerry says "dumping neocons and replacing them with real Republican conservatives" is far more important to his campaign than the flag.

At first glance, McBerry's pitch might seem appealing. Yet Democrats want no part of giving him exposure. They see McBerry potentially pulling anti-Perdue ballots away from the Democratic primary. Most ranking Republicans believe their man Perdue is a shoo-in for re-election, so why bother with the distraction of a McBerry?

As for poor McBerry, this contest may turn out to be the learning experience of a lifetime. With the July 18 primary bearing down and McBerry still off the voters' scopes, it may have dawned on him that an entrenched political establishment can easily turn a nuisance candidate into a nonperson, and no remedy is available, save an immediate and sizeable injection of dollars.

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