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McKinney in fight of her life

Ralph Reed's weren't the only voters who stayed home last week.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, apathy in Georgia's 4th Congressional District last Tuesday cost U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney an outright win in the Democratic primary.

By failing to capture half of the vote in a three-way race, the veteran congresswoman from Decatur was forced into an Aug. 8 runoff, where she will be fighting for her political life against Hank Johnson, a little-known DeKalb County commissioner.

Comparing last week's numbers to the 2004 primary tell the story.

Fewer than 62,000 Democratic voters in DeKalb, Rockdale and Gwinnett counties went to the polls in the 4th District race, a huge dropoff from the more than 95,000 who cast ballots two years ago.

In 2004, McKinney amassed 48,512 votes in defeating five primary opponents to capture the Democratic nomination without the need for a runoff. And she wasn't even an incumbent that year, having lost her seat in Congress in 2002 to Denise Majette, who left the House after one term in an unsuccessful run for the Senate.

Last week, McKinney only mustered a little more than 29,000 votes.

What happened to the nearly 20,000 voters who supported her two years ago but not last week?

McKinney did little to fire them up this time around, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.

"There was no contest,'' he said. "She wasn't debating. There was no paid media. ... She ran more of a stealth campaign.''

McKinney's many controversial statements during a dozen years in office, including outspoken criticism of President Bush during the past five years, have made her a frequent target of Republicans and, sometimes, even Democrats.

She has blamed her lightning-rod status on the mainstream media and has avoided interviews for years.

But she had more reason than usual to run a low-profile campaign this summer.

McKinney got into a confrontation with a Capitol police office in March, when he didn't recognize her at a checkpoint and tried to stop her.

At one point, she struck the officer, prompting prosecutors to refer the incident to a grand jury.

While the panel declined to indict McKinney for assault, police organizations continue to protest the incident. Last week, the national Fraternal Order of Police, its Georgia counterpart and the DeKalb County FOP all announced they would back Johnson in the runoff.

With McKinney not campaigning aggressively, Johnson and the third candidate in the race - John Coyne III - were able to garner enough "Anybody But Cynthia'' votes in last week's primary to force the runoff.

Johnson finished just slightly behind McKinney, 47.1 percent to 44.4 percent.

He was by far the more effective of the two challengers at portraying her as an ineffective advocate for the 4th District - a charge she refuted on Election Night - and asserting that he would focus more on issues of concern to local voters, from jobs and health care to transportation.

Although Johnson starts the runoff from second place, he enjoys some important advantages over McKinney.

There's history, for one thing. Incumbents don't tend to do well in runoffs because voters perceive their inability to win the first time around as a sign of weakness.

Many political observers found McKinney being forced into a runoff the biggest surprise of last week's primary results, even more of a shocker than the margin of state Sen. Casey Cagle's victory over Reed in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor.

Thus, Johnson is poised to reap the benefit of having exceeded expectations.

"The momentum has swung to Johnson,'' Black said. "He'll be able to raise money. ... McKinney has to completely rethink her campaign strategy.''

With Coyne out of the race, Johnson also would be expected to pick up the vast majority of his votes.

But there are no guarantees in a runoff, especially when one of the candidates has proven to be as resilient as McKinney.

Combined with Coyne's votes, Johnson would have enough to win.

However, that's only if the turnout is roughly the same. Usually, far fewer voters bother to come back for runoffs.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the biggest challenge candidates face in runoffs is getting their voters who showed up the first time to come out again.

There's no way at this point to gauge whether McKinney will be more successful at getting her voters back to the polls or how Johnson will fare at getting the anti-Cynthia vote to turn out again.

"In a runoff, if you can get people out to vote for you a second time, you win because of the lower turnout,'' Bullock said. "If you can do that, you win.''

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