Georgia may be in play in 2008

Next year's presidential candidates have piled up lots of frequent-flyer miles on visits to Georgia during the last few months.

But public sightings of the Republican and Democratic hopefuls have been few and far between.

In fact, Sen. Barack Obama's rally at Georgia Tech on Saturday was the first event of its kind in this state since the 2008 campaign cranked up.

It wasn't the Illinois Democrat's first trip to Georgia. He and other top-tier presidential candidates have beaten a path to our state, but they've spent their time here behind closed doors at private fundraisers.

Just last week, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani picked up checks from Republican-leaning business executives at a Buckhead restaurant.

Saturday found former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina collecting contributions from fellow Democrats in Macon.

The spate of fundraisers has led political pundits to describe Georgia as an ATM for presidential candidates.

With the state increasingly trending Republican, it's become conventional wisdom to consider Georgia safe for the GOP and, thus, not worth stumping for votes.

The last few presidential elections support that premise.

Since Democrat Bill Clinton carried Georgia on his way to winning the presidency in 1992, Republicans have outpolled Democrats here in the last three presidential contests. Bob Dole won the state narrowly over Clinton in 1996.

The GOP vote really took off four years later, when President Bush carried Georgia by a wide margin, and he repeated that strong showing in 2004.

But local backers of Obama and Giuliani say Saturday's rally may be a sign that public campaign stops are about to become more the rule in Georgia than the exception.

"I think Senator Obama is taking a 50-state approach," said state Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, who co-chaired a recent Obama fundraiser in Atlanta. "(His) message is one that will resonate with Georgians."

Former Georgia Republican Chairman Rusty Paul, who helped host Giuliani's fundraiser last week, said the new primary schedule the General Assembly is expected to adopt this week should make Georgia more important to presidential hopefuls.

Legislation passed by the House and now before the Senate would move up the state's 2008 presidential primaries a month to Feb. 5.

More than 20 states, including California and Florida, either already have moved their primaries to that date or are considering the change. That would set up a mega-primary on the heels of crucial early primaries and caucuses in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada.

Some political observers have warned that all but the largest states would get lost in the shuffle if so many primaries were held simultaneously.

But Paul said candidates wouldn't necessarily concentrate their campaigns leading up to such a huge vote just in the biggest states.

"They're going to be looking at poll numbers, deciding where their best opportunities are and going there," he said.

"New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina will still be important. ... (But) people are going to want to wake up on Feb. 6 bragging about either the states they won or the delegates they picked up."

Thus, according to Paul's reasoning, candidates who believe they have a good shot at winning the Georgia primary and adding it to their collection of states are going to spend a lot of time here.

And they won't just be raising money.

"Instead of just flying in and going straight to a fundraiser, they're going to try to combine fundraising with other activities that are going to get some news coverage," Paul said.

Giuliani's trip last week was a good example of that strategy.

After flying into Hartsfield-Jackson, he went to the airport's USO Center to shake hands with soldiers headed for Iraq. The hero of New York City's response to 9/11 also spent part of his day in Georgia visiting a fire station in Augusta.

Georgians are likely to see a lot more of Giuliani between now and February.

A poll conducted April 5-7 by Atlanta-based Strategic Vision and released last week found Giuliani in the lead among Georgia Republicans, with 23 percent support among 800 likely voters surveyed.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona was second in the GOP contest, with 17 percent, and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee - who hasn't formally entered the race - was third with 12 percent.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was tops among Democrats, according to the Georgia poll, with 25 percent. Obama was second with 22 percent, and Edwards was third with 20 percent.

The poll's margin of error was plus-or-minus 3 percent.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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