Voter's guide '08
Conservative county may be leaning more to the left

LAWRENCEVILLE - In 2004, Gwinnett County gave George W. Bush one of his biggest margins of victory in the country.

But has the influx of immigrants and a surge of young voters turned the conservative county - where every school board member and county commissioner is Republican - closer to the left?

Maybe, said Dovile Budryte, a political science professor at Georgia Gwinnett College.

"It's safe to say it's going to be more Democratic, but I'm not brave enough to say it will go blue," she said, adding that a recent college event turned out a huge crowd of McCain-Palin supporters. "It does show there are people strongly right, strongly Republican. ... Of course it's possible. This time is definitely very, very good for the Democrats."

While the red county possibly takes on a more purple hue, Budryte said the trend could translate into a few Democrats taking over local positions.

Party Chairman Mike Berlon said he believes that could happen, especially because of voter backlash over issues such as the county stadium and antagonism for incumbents.

Berlon said he believes Democrats have a shot at a school board seat or two and possibly even the county chairmanship.

"It's partisan, but it's not. You are talking about quality of life issues, and not Republican or Democrat," Berlon said of the local races.

As for Obama, Berlon said he can only hope for a close race in Gwinnett.

"I expect him to perform well here, but we are just outnumbered," he said.

The GOP's Gregory Howard admitted there could be a shift to the Dems in the southern parts of Gwinnett, but he said more Republicans have moved into northern areas, creating an expectation of "status quo."

But Howard said he doesn't believe the entire state will turn blue, even though polls show McCain's lead slipping in Georgia. Instead, Howard said he's given out a record number of signs and bumper stickers. He said he's heard of people lying to pollsters.

Down the ticket, though, he admits the GOP's iron grasp on local politics could loosen.

"They have posted some candidates and some are stronger than others," he said of commission and school board seats. "I think our incumbents are better (candidates), but it's good to have a challenge because it keeps them honest."

The U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin is anybody's call, they say, with some pollsters expecting a runoff because of the challenge of Libertarian Allen Buckley.

If the race does head to a runoff, though, Berlon says, the national spotlight could hit squarely onto Georgia for the rest of November.

SideBar: Voter turnout could be high on Tuesday

LAWRENCEVILLE - With more than 74,000 ballots already cast, officials expect up to 90 percent of Gwinnettians to vote in this year's presidential election.

Elections Director Lynn Ledford originally projected about 88 percent of Gwinnett's 421,000 registered voters to turn out, but long lines for more than two weeks as people voted by absentee ballot caused her to increase the projection.

In fact, between the 74,583 who voted in person and the 29,933 absentee ballots mailed out, nearly a quarter of the county's voters had already cast their ballots through Thursday.

While the county typically has a higher voter turnout than national statistics, officials across the nation are predicting crowded polls Tuesday, when voters will decide between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain for president.

Voters will also decide if Saxby Chambliss will return to the U.S. Senate, after a strong challenge from Democrat Jim Martin and local races from county commission chairman and school board to city council. An extension to the county sales tax to fund roads and parks is among the questions on the ballot.

"I think lines will be long on Tuesday because it a presidential election, and the number of early voters is an indication of the level of interest this election has drawn," Ledford said.

If the county does reach 90 percent, it would be higher than the 2004 election, which brought 82.08 percent to the polls. In 2000, 74.87 percent turned out, and in 1996 67.09 percent did.