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Primary races hard to predict

Does gender trump the race card in a Democratic primary for governor?

Or is winning the black voting bloc the most important element in a successful quest for the Democratic nomination?

We may know the answers to those questions in a week. The primary - a likely barometer of the long-term fate of the Democratic Party - is Tuesday.

Republicans also are engaged in a pivotal primary battle with long-term implications. We're coming to that, but first, the Democratic wars:

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor leads Secretary of State Cathy Cox by about two-to-one among all black voters, according to a reliable but confidential poll.

However, Cox runs away with the vote of women, black and white, by a margin of at least 6 percentage points, the same poll indicates.

Here's the knotty problem facing both candidates: More than half the voters in the Democratic primary are certain to be black. That means Taylor has a lock on the nomination, right? Not necessarily. Consider this: More than half the voters in the Democratic primary are certain to be women. So that gives the edge to Cox, right? Well, in that case ...

Put away your calculator. Unless you know a good psychic who is also a math professor, understanding the true meaning of the black-white ratio or the gender factor won't be easy until the votes are counted. Even then you may remain befuddled. Your conclusion might simply be that reliable polling is not as reliable as it used to be.

One thing is certain, however. The contest between Cox and Taylor has turned into a first-rate fireworks exhibition. The fight may revive the state Democratic Party. Taylor has run an effective campaign from day one. Cox started slowly but has surged as primary day nears.

Regardless of partisan feelings, Georgia citizens are served best by strong competing political parties.

Sure, the advertising has been mean and negative. Some TV spots on both sides border on outright character assassination.

Yet the flame-thrower advertising ought to hearten Democrats. The hard (and expensive) licks mean party stalwarts still believe the Democratic nomination for governor is an attractive prize, even against a seemingly strong Republican incumbent. We won't know whether the battling Democrats' enthusiasm was worth it until the November general election.

The Cox-Taylor fight is either the start of a brighter chapter for Democrats, or it is the beginning of the end for the once all-dominant state party. The size of the July turnout for Democrats will signal the party's direction. Two years ago, barely 500,000 ballots were cast in an eight-candidate Democratic primary for an open U.S. Senate seat.

OK, so you're a white male Georgian, and you don't much care what the Democrats are up to? You're not alone. In fact, your peers comprise a plurality of the adult population.

You don't have to sit out the summer in boredom. The Republican primary for lieutenant governor is as fierce as the Democrats' gubernatorial fight. The questions it raises are just as perplexing.

State Sen. Casey Cagle of Gainesville and his Republican organizational allies are trying to block former state GOP chairman Ralph Reed from starting his elective career as Georgia's lieutenant governor. Did we forget to mention that Cagle also wants to be lieutenant governor?

Noted as the bankers' best friend in the state Senate, Cagle has much of the corporate community on his side. Reed, the wunderkind of the Christian Coalition, is depending on a great tide of religious conservatives to carry him into office.

Jack Abramoff, a former Washington lobbyist habitually depicted in a black hat and trench coat, may be the decisive factor. The reputation of corrupt influence-peddler Abramoff, who helped Reed rake in millions from Indian casino interests, has been used to try to smudge RR's scrubbed image. Though he has been mentioned frequently as an associate of prison-bound Abramoff, Reed has not been accused of any wrongdoing. He also freely admits he was once a close bud of Abramoff - just as he was of Zell Miller, Pat Robertson and Jack Kemp.

Even if Reed misspent part of his youth with the wrong crowd, the Abramoff connection may be a bit too murky to decipher for most Georgia voters, including your humble correspondent. However, the Cagle-Reed bout may tell us who really rules the Georgia GOP - the clerical collars or the corporate suits.

Footnote: Don't be surprised to see an unusually large voter turnout in the Republican primary, though the marquee race involves a relatively minor office (lieutenant governor). Many independent voters and traditional Democrats are taking Republican absentee ballots, probably to vote against Reed.

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.