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Chambliss faces good odds of staying in office

This spring, many Georgia Republicans were calling for Sen. Saxby Chambliss' scalp.

The GOP lawmaker was booed loudly at the state Republican Convention in Gwinnett County for working with President Bush and Senate Democrats on an immigration reform bill giving illegal immigrants now in this country a pathway to American citizenship.

But Chambliss subsequently backed away from the legislation, and it ultimately fizzled.

Five months later, if the latest fundraising reports in next year's Senate race are any indication, Chambliss has put the immigration flap behind him.

Last week, the freshman senator reported raising more than $1 million during the third quarter, boosting his campaign war chest to $3.9 million.

That's well more than 10 times beyond what his Democratic challengers have raised combined.

Between them, DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones and former Atlanta TV reporter Dale Cardwell had about $300,000 in their campaign accounts as of Sept. 30.

That's nowhere near breaking seven figures, the minimum U.S. Senate candidates must raise to be considered viable, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

"Until you cross that ($1 million) threshold, you're not taken seriously," he said. "People say, 'I'm not going to waste my money.' "

Between Jones and Cardwell, Jones is proving more adept at bringing in donations.

His campaign reported raising about $185,000 during July, August and September, giving him about $265,000 cash on hand at the end of the reporting period.

Cardwell, who has vowed not to accept contributions from political action committees or Washington lobbyists, raised about $55,000 during the third quarter, leaving him with about $35,000 as of Sept. 30.

A third Democrat in the race, Rand Knight, had not filed his third-quarter report as of late last week, and no one from his campaign could be reached.

But he did report raising more than $40,000 during the second quarter, which left him with about $20,000 at the end of June.

Josh Lanier became the fourth Democratic candidate when he announced his entry last week.

Bullock said it's no surprise that Jones is the leading fund-raiser among the Democrats. Jones is the only one who has held elective office, having served both in county government and, before that, in the Georgia House.

"He has been a political figure," Bullock said. "He knows how to do it."

But even if Jones goes on to win the Democratic nomination, he's not going to have the financial resources to compete with Chambliss in paid advertising.

Martin Metheny, spokesman for the Georgia Democratic Party, said his party's nominee instead will rely on old-fashioned grass-roots politics.

"When we have a Senate nominee, we're going to make sure they have the best grass-roots operation we can give them," he said.

But that's a difficult position for any candidate in a statewide race against a deep-pocketed incumbent.

Bullock said what has the Democrats facing such uphill prospects against Chambliss is that the party no longer has a strong bench of officeholders prepared to seek a top statewide post.

Republican gains in Georgia in recent years have left Democrats holding just three of 15 statewide elective offices.

Democratic members of Congress and Democrats in the General Assembly might be well known in their districts but lack name recognition statewide, Bullock said.

Without name recognition, candidates seeking statewide office have a tough time raising enough money, he said.

And money is what it all comes down to in a statewide race.

For example, a Democrat who could afford an expensive ad campaign could raise the illegal immigration issue against Chambliss.

Without those ads, however, the challenger would have to rely on sporadic press coverage, Bullock said.

"It won't get hammered home the way it has to be to get the attention of voters," he said.

Lack of money also can have a snowball effect.

An underfunded Democratic challenger isn't likely to get much help from Washington, which otherwise could be a financial boon.

The Senate Democratic Campaign Committee wouldn't likely open up its coffers to a Georgia Democrat without enough money on his own to compete against Chambliss.

And next year, national Democrats working to hold onto their narrow majority will have their sights set on other races they believe they have a better chance of winning.

At the top of that hit list will be five open Senate seats, all held by Republicans, primarily in states that have become more competitive for Democrats than Georgia.

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