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Surprise leaders in Ga. money race

President Bush is ineligible to run for a third term next year, thanks to a constitutional amendment adopted after Franklin D. Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth term in 1944.

For Bush, that may be a good thing. If first-quarter fundraising by the current crop of presidential hopefuls is any indication, voters in Georgia and elsewhere are in the mood for a change.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois led the money race in Georgia among Republicans and Democrats, respectively, during the first three months of this year, according to numbers crunched by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Romney also far outdistanced better-known GOP rivals Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani in fundraising nationwide during the first quarter.

"He's sort of a fresh face on the scene," said Eric Tanenblatt, finance chairman for the Romney campaign in Georgia. "I think people are looking for new players and a fresh face."

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University, also applied the "fresh face" label to Obama, who blew away the rest of the Democratic field in first-quarter fundraising in Georgia and finished a close second nationally to former first lady and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"He is ... a voice of optimism within the Democratic Party, particularly among young people," Black said.

In various ways, both candidates stand out from their opponents for the 2008 presidential nominations.

Unlike the other major Republican candidates, who have spent years in public office, Romney has been in the private sector for most of his career as a business executive.

"He was known for saving and turning around companies," Tanenblatt said.

Romney's successful rescues included the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which were plagued with financial scandals until he took over.

Romney, a Mormon, also has positioned himself to the right of longtime party maverick McCain and Giuliani, the only major candidate at last week's Republican debate in California who spoke in ambivalent terms about the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

Tanenblatt said Romney's conservatism is especially appealing in the South.

"He's a conservative candidate," he said. "Southern Republicans are conservative."

For a candidate with much less name recognition than his chief rivals, Romney surprisingly was the top first-quarter fundraiser among Republicans in Georgia, with nearly $400,000. McCain was next with just more than $100,000, and Giuliani only raised about $75,000.

Obama, the only black senator, is clearly the other surprise among the top-tier candidates in this early portion of the presidential race.

State Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, who co-chaired a recent Obama fundraiser in Atlanta, said what's most impressive about his candidate's fundraising prowess is the breadth of his support.

While Clinton slightly outraised Obama nationwide during the first quarter, Adelman said Obama had about twice as many contributors.

"His fundraising has been successful in every region," Adelman said. "It's a good sign that his fundraising is so balanced."

The Clinton campaign can't make the same claim. In the South, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina easily topped both Clinton and Obama in first-quarter fundraising.

In Georgia, Obama turned the tables on Clinton and Edwards, raising nearly $480,000 to about $380,000 for Edwards and only a little more than $80,000 for Clinton.

"The surprising thing is that Hillary Clinton hasn't raised a lot of money (in Georgia)," Black said. "Certainly, a lot of Georgia people gave to her husband."

At the same time, Black said he doesn't put a lot of stock in the candidates' first-quarter numbers because it's still early in the campaign.

"Some of these campaigns really weren't organized or weren't trying to raise a lot of money in the first quarter," he said.

To be successful in the upcoming primaries, Black said Obama will have to prove that his appeal to young Democrats will translate into votes. As a group, young people are notorious for not showing up at the polls.

Black said Romney's success at winning primary votes from Southern Republicans could depend on whether former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee enters the race.

"He has the potential to do very well in Georgia and the other Southern states," Black said. "He would get a lot of votes from conservatives."

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

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