A photograph of fictitious political crusader Jefferson Smith berating the Senate for corruption hangs amid dozens of pictures of real celebrities in Sen. Saxby Chambliss' office outside Atlanta.
Portrayed by actor James Stewart, naive and angry freshman Sen. Jefferson Smith sets out to clean up government in the 1939 film classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
I wanted to ask Chambliss if he thought of himself as another Mr. Smith. I was too late. Georgia's senior senator was already meeting with other constituents when I spotted the old publicity picture. Besides, I knew the answer.
Saxby Chambliss is not Jefferson Smith and probably never will be. Chambliss is the ideal team player, a guy who takes orders and carries them out perfectly. The White House loves him.
It is reassuring to know, however, that Mr. Smith and his principles are appreciated enough to deserve a place of honor in Chambliss' office.
The national media rate Republican Chambliss among the most conservative senators and nearly No. 1 among lawmakers most likely to back President Bush on virtually every position, except perhaps immigration. Chambliss is the hawk of hawks on the war in Iraq.
Democratic leaders regularly refer to Chambliss as Bush's lapdog. State Democratic Chairwoman Jane Kidd ranks recruiting a strong challenger for Chambliss among her most pressing chores. Chambliss is up for re-election in 2008 to a second term.
Firebrand trial lawyer Jim Butler of Columbus, Democratic legislative leader DuBose Porter of Dublin and DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones are mentioned as opponents.
At the moment, none of the above stand a chance against Chambliss. Here's why:
• Voters need a reason to fire a senator. The current climate in Georgia suggests Democrats have little chance of building a case for tossing out Chambliss. The donkeys still wail about the "unfair" advertising Chambliss used in 2002 to beat triple-amputee Vietnam vet Max Cleland. The TV spots appeared to question Cleland's patriotism and portrayed him with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The truth of the matter: Cleland was not beaten by those spots; he was defeated by his failure to respond to them.
• Chambliss's solid support of Bush is OK with most Georgians. The president's approval rating may be nose-diving in much of the nation, but not in the Peach State. "W" may not be as popular here as he once was, but he remains high on Georgians' "good guys" list.
Georgia is different from many other states because past senators and representatives (Russell, Nunn, Vinson) packed Georgia with military bases and other defense installations.
These facilities have a significant effect on public opinion that permeates churches, schools and the business community. In much of Georgia, there is no downside to supporting the war in Iraq.
• Chambliss may not be another Stewart, but he possesses the "right look." Accurately or not, he is perceived generally as "a fine, Christian man" and "a nice guy." If a film were produced about Chambliss, it would be titled "Joe Frank Harris Goes to Washington."
• To have any chance of victory, a challenger would have to be loaded with personal wealth to invest in a campaign. Nearly all big-business cash will go to Chambliss.
Before you bet the home place on Chambliss, remember this: In March 1980, Sen. Herman Talmadge, first elected to the Senate 24 years earlier, seemed a shoo-in for re-election, despite an almost laughable minor scandal involving his divorce and an overcoat pocket stuffed with U.S. currency. Georgia voters were not amused. They elected a little known Republican, Mack Mattingly, to replace Talmadge.
Says a sage political strategist: "To beat Saxby, you would have to have a fresh face, possibly a business type who played big-time football - someone like Congressman Heath Shuler from North Carolina." No one comes to mind in Georgia who quite fits the Shuler matrix.
The Republican presidential primary is iffier than the Senate election. Polls notwithstanding, the smart money believes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will emerge as the Southern favorite.
Deep down, mainstream Republicans and religious conservatives do not like or trust Sen. John McCain. Regarding another favorite, an old Southern political rule applies. No one whose name ends with an "i" has a chance of winning the region.
It doesn't matter that Rudy Giuliani is out front now. He won't be around for the main victory party in November 2008.
I plan to clip and save this column. I may need it as an appetizer at a crow banquet next year.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at email@example.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.