Both Democrats and Republicans have emerged from Georgia's summer primaries and runoffs boasting geographical balance at the top of their tickets.
The GOP's slate for governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state represents, respectively, middle Georgia, north Georgia and Atlanta's northern suburbs, regions either already considered Republican strongholds or where the party is building support.
The Democrats' ticket represents south Georgia, Atlanta and the capital's inner suburbs, areas flush with Democratic voters.
But as the candidates gear up for the traditional post-Labor Day stretch run to the November election, political observers say Gov. Sonny Perdue and his Republican teammates stand to benefit more by who is not on the ballot than by the names voters will see on Election Day.
Privately, many GOP insiders were cringing at what once was considered a strong possibility that Perdue would be sharing the ticket with Ralph Reed, whose name during the primary campaign for lieutenant governor became tied inextricably with disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Gainesville-area state Sen. Casey Cagle took care of that concern by soundly defeating Reed in the July primary.
Another worry for Republicans was Cathy Cox, the Democratic secretary of state many considered a tougher opponent for Perdue than Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor because of her perceived ability to appeal to women voters.
Taylor erased that threat by taking out Cox in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
"I think Sonny Perdue got exactly what he wanted,'' said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "He doesn't have to duck brickbats that would have been thrown at Ralph Reed ... and he doesn't have to run against Cathy Cox.''
Geographical balance wasn't always a strong suit for Georgia Republicans. As recently as 1998, the GOP ticket was headed by gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner and Mitch Skandalakis for lieutenant governor, both from Fulton County.
That image of Republicans as a metro Atlanta party hurt the GOP elsewhere, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.
Now, Republicans have Cagle from north Georgia, secretary of state hopeful Karen Handel from the northern Fulton County suburbs and Perdue, from Houston County, smack in the middle of a region of suburban and rural counties that are becoming increasingly vital to GOP fortunes.
"Middle Georgia is the part of the state where Republicans are putting a lot of pressure on Democrats,'' Black said. "Governor Perdue has put a rural, small-town stamp on the party.''
But Republicans are still having trouble making inroads anywhere in south Georgia except the coastal counties.
Democrats expect to be strong in the region again with Taylor at the top of the ticket. The Albany native represented southwest Georgia in the Georgia Senate for a dozen years before being elected lieutenant governor in 1998.
Likewise, Democrats are looking to turn out their urban supporters in Atlanta with former Rep. Jim Martin, who represented one of the city's House districts for 18 years, running for lieutenant governor.
Democratic secretary of state candidate Gail Buckner has represented a House district in Clayton County for 16 years, a part of Atlanta's closer-in suburbs where Democrats are gaining strength.
But what makes the 2006 race an uphill one for Georgia Democrats is that counties like Clayton are the exception rather than the rule. Democratic strongholds have become fewer in recent years as Republicans have become dominant in more parts of the state.
The last Democratic sweep came in 1998, when former Gov. Roy Barnes defeated Millner and Taylor beat Skandalakis. Since then, President Bush carried Georgia twice, Perdue ran Barnes out of office, voters elected Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson to the U.S. Senate and the GOP has captured control of the General Assembly.
Black pointed to exit polls conducted during the 2004 elections in which 44 percent of Georgia voters described themselves as Republicans and 36 percent were Democrats.
"It's a plurality that puts the Republicans a lot closer to 50 percent than the Democrats,'' he said.
Bullock said Taylor proved to be the stronger primary candidate because, as the Senate's presiding officer, he showed Democratic voters his mettle as a partisan warrior slugging it out with Republicans in the legislative trenches.
That's less effective in a general election, when voters who consider themselves independents and loathe political partisanship turn up at the polls. The research shows that, more often than not, those independent voters are women.
"Voters who are less partisan might have found someone who hasn't been in the trenches more attractive." Bullock said. "Women are liable to look at two slightly overweight guys running for governor and say, 'Big deal.'''
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