ATLANTA - Mark Taylor has been preparing for 20 years to become Georgia's governor.
The Democrat from Albany spent 12 years as a member of the state Senate, then presided over that legislative chamber for the last eight years as lieutenant governor.
But it's just in the last four years that Taylor, 49, has shown his best potential to be an effective governor, said Sen. Michael Meyer von Bremen, D-Albany, who won Taylor's old Senate seat in 1998.
That's because Taylor has been forced for the first time to work with a Republican majority. To hear Meyer von Bremen tell it, he hasn't missed a beat.
"I think Mark has shown a very diplomatic ability to get along and get things done,'' he said.
Taylor won the Democratic nomination by defeating Secretary of State Cathy Cox in a July primary. Now, he's facing Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and Libertarian Garrett Michael Hayes.
Cox portrayed herself during the primary race as a less partisan alternative to Taylor, even appointing a former Republican state lawmaker to chair her campaign.
But Taylor, over the years, has crafted a record to protect himself from the typical charge Republicans hurl at Democratic statewide candidates, that they're too liberal for mainstream Georgia voters.
As former Gov. Zell Miller's Senate floor leader, he sponsored the popular two strikes and you're out bill aimed at violent criminals who repeat their misdeeds.
As lieutenant governor, Taylor pushed legislation through the Senate, creating a statewide DNA database to aid criminal investigations.
"I think the lieutenant governor has a clear record of strong leadership in the area of fighting crime,'' said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon.
Taylor earned his stripes as a tax cutter by leading the charge in the Senate for legislation eliminating the sales tax on groceries.
Working with Republicans, he also led the way in developing a package of bills aimed at helping the families of Georgians called to active military duty and sent into war zones.
But it's Taylor's education record that led him to secure the highly sought endorsement of the Georgia Association of Educators.
He was there from the creation of the lottery funded HOPE Scholarship and state pre-kindergarten programs.
Since Perdue has taken office, Taylor has been at the forefront of critics of the governor's cuts to the state's per-pupil school funding formula.
Last week, Taylor staged some campaign season drama by signing a pledge to stop those cuts if he's elected governor.
"Leadership is all about setting priorities,'' he said. "My priority will be education.''
The lieutenant governor also has been on the attack against Perdue's cuts to health care.
Senate Democrats sponsored a bill on Taylor's behalf this year to create a program he called PeachKids. The bill, which was dead on arrival in the Republican Senate, would have provided health insurance to about 100,000 children whose families earn too much to qualify for existing programs but can't afford private coverage.
Yet, for all of that, Taylor hasn't been able to get out of the low 30s in the polls since the primary and has consistently trailed Perdue by about 20 points.
Taylor's one solace is that Perdue has been hovering around 50 percent - the minimum needed to avoid a runoff - because Hayes has been drawing a surprisingly strong 8 to 9 percent.
Hayes, 50, has been running on a platform that calls for open public school enrollment, a stronger constitutional amendment restricting eminent domain than Republicans passed this year and eliminating the state income tax.
"I want you to run your own life and keep your own money,'' Hayes told an audience of about 500 earlier this month during the first gubernatorial debate of the general election race.
A key problem for Taylor that's apparent from his weak numbers is generating enthusiasm from constituencies that might be expected to embrace a Democratic candidate.
Even his PeachKids proposal isn't exciting those who have been critical of Perdue's health care policies.
Linda Lowe, a consumer health advocate, said Taylor's plan stops well short of offering universal coverage, the kind of bold approach that would actually do something about the growing number of uninsured children in Georgia.
"There's been way too little focus on the real issues affecting Georgia throughout the campaign,'' she said. "It's been disappointing.''
A Democratic candidate for governor might expect the support of environmental groups. But neither the Sierra Club nor Georgia Conservation Voters endorsed Taylor.
Norman Slawsky, acting chairman of the Georgia Sierra Club chapter's political committee, took issue with Perdue's version of green space preservation as less protective than the program created by former Gov. Roy Barnes.
Slawsky also criticized Perdue for dragging his feet on bringing commuter rail service to the traffic choked Atlanta region, which environmentalists advocate as a solution to the metro area's air pollution woes.
The Sierra Club endorsed Cox in the primary and won't switch over to Taylor.
"I think Cathy Cox had a vision in mind for regional planning, water issues and transportation,'' Slawsky said. "I don't think Mark Taylor has anything like that.''
NARAL-Pro Choice Georgia, the state's leading abortion rights organization, also is sitting out the gubernatorial race, another group that tends to endorse Democrats.
Taylor's announcement last week that he would push to raise the minimum wage by $1 could help gin up his support among some Democratic enthusiasts.
Like Perdue, Taylor has been forced to defend his character as the campaign has unfolded.
Republicans have hit him repeatedly with ethics complaints alleging that he has taken illegal campaign contributions.
Perhaps more damaging have been accusations that he has used his position to steer state leases to his father's trucking business.
Taylor said all of the leases in question were competitively bid, many of them while he was still in high school.
"There is no conflict of interest,'' he said.
Less easy to duck has been the $100,000 annual salary Taylor admits he receives from the trucking company for only a few hours of work each month. The Perdue camp also has swatted Taylor for still living in a home owned by his father.
While it's debatable whether any of those charges are hurting the lieutenant governor, his poll numbers are running below Georgia's base of reliable Democratic voters.
But his supporters say they aren't buying the explanation being given most often for that apparent lack of support - that Taylor has split the Democratic Party.
As the argument goes, the rough and tumble nature of his primary win over Cox has alienated women voters, while his tough on crime stands have turned off black voters.
Indeed, Taylor has tried to out tough Perdue on crime, vowing to seek the death penalty for repeat child molesters and criticizing the governor for not building any new prisons during his tenure.
Resonating with women
Meyer von Bremen said Taylor's stands against Perdue's cuts to education and health care appeal to female voters.
"He's strong on issues that are important to women,'' he said.
Brown, who is black, said black voters are more anti-crime than political pundits seem to think. For example, he said the two strikes and you're out law drew strong support from majority black precincts in his Senate district when it went before voters as a constitutional amendment.
"I think what Mark Taylor has to say about crime is going to resonate with the majority of people, including those in the African-American community,'' Brown said.
But Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said Taylor faces an uphill fight that's not entirely of his making.
"He in a sense is a Democratic pioneer,'' Bullock said. "He is the first person to run for governor as a Democrat without having Democrats in control of state government.''
Bullock said that's made it difficult for Taylor to raise money. He exhausted his treasury beating Cox and had to rebuild it before he could put up TV ads for the general election.