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Ga. likely a major player in primaries

When lawmakers voted last year to move up Georgia's 2008 presidential primaries to early February, many political observers said even that wouldn't be soon enough to give voters a say in the nominations.

But with split decisions for both the Republicans and Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, Georgia suddenly has taken on special significance among more than 20 states holding primaries Feb. 5.

Georgia will have the third-most GOP delegates at stake on Super Tuesday and the sixth-highest number of Democratic delegates up for grabs.

Before Iowa and New Hampshire, it seemed particularly unlikely that the Democratic race would still be undecided heading into Georgia because of the smaller field of candidates.

But when former first lady and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton defied the polls in New Hampshire last week to blunt the momentum Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois had built by winning the Iowa caucus, all bets were off.

"Had Obama won again, the Clinton campaign might have been on the ropes," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. Bullock said the Georgia primary is Obama's to lose, despite Clinton's win in New Hampshire.

He said that by carrying such an overwhelmingly white state as Iowa, Obama has demonstrated to black voters his viability as a presidential candidate.

Black voters make up a sizable portion of the Democratic electorate in both South Carolina, where Democrats will vote on Jan. 26, and Georgia.

Black voters accounted for 42.5 percent of the turnout for Georgia's 2004 Democratic presidential primary, a showing party officials expect to be higher this time.

"I'd be very surprised if he didn't carry both Georgia and South Carolina," Bullock said.

But U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, D-Ohio, a co-chairwoman of the Clinton campaign, said Obama has no automatic claim on black votes.

"African-Americans are not monolithic," she said. "To say African-Americans are going to vote for Barack Obama because he's African-American diminishes the intelligence of the African-American voter."

In fact, Tubbs-Jones said, Clinton appeals to black voters because of both her record and the ties established with the black community by former president Bill Clinton.

"She's been with us and our issues," Tubbs-Jones said.

For her part, Clinton is going after the women's vote in Georgia. Women make up 52.6 percent of the state's registered voters.

Campaign organizers are planning a women's rally for Clinton late this month and hope to have her there.

State Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, an Obama supporter, said his candidate will open at least a half dozen field offices across the state.

"It's going to be the largest grass-roots campaign in the history of Georgia," Adelman said.

On the Republican side, the turn toward the South the campaign trail is taking should favor Mike Huckabee.

The former Arkansas governor scored a big win in Iowa, putting him at least on par with ex-Arizona Sen. John McCain, the victor in New Hampshire, and well ahead of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

Ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani laid low during the early stages of the campaign, banking on winning the big states later, starting with Florida on Jan. 29.

At least one-third of Georgia's Republican voters are Christian conservatives, a constituency made for Huckabee, a Baptist minister.

"Huckabee is very well positioned now coming into the South," Bullock said. "It's his natural territory."

But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney isn't conceding any state or region, said Georgia House Speaker Pro Tempore Mark Burkhalter, a Romney supporter.

After being upended in Iowa, a state he spent a lot of time and money trying to carry, Romney salvaged a victory largely out of the media's spotlight by winning the Wyoming Republican caucus.

Shrugging off Romney's start, Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, said the well-financed former corporate executive has staying power.

"The media loves the flavor of the month," he said. "Governor Romney has a plan in every state. ... We're in it for the long run."

That staying power will be sorely tested in the coming days. Romney badly needs a win on Tuesday in his native state of Michigan, where his father, George, served as governor.

In attempting to corner the conservative wing of the Republican vote, Romney has attacked both McCain and Huckabee on immigration, McCain for supporting a comprehensive reform bill that would give illegal immigrants already in this country a path to citizenship, and Huckabee for backing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants as governor.

But Shawn Davis, Huckabee's Georgia spokesman, said bashing his candidate on immigration won't sway voters.

"He's made it clear that he does not support amnesty," Davis said. "He does have a border control program. It's a very important issue to him."

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