- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia was considered such a re-election shoo-in for most of 2008 that he mostly ignored attacks by his Democratic challenger until two weeks ago.

Unfortunately for the Republican incumbent, by then his one-time 20-plus-percentage-point lead in the polls over Democratic challenger Jim Martin had shrunk to almost nothing.

“Chambliss is in real trouble - he suddenly has a dead-heat race on this hands, which I don’t know he expected,” said Matthew Miller, spokesman with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Martin has put together a good campaign quietly under the national radar.”

The Democrat was expected to pose little if any threat to Mr. Chambliss’ re-election bid. The former Georgia House member didn’t even win the Democratic primary, finishing second to a suburban Atlanta county official.

However, after a surprising 20-percentage-point runoff victory in August, Mr. Martin’s campaign quickly built momentum. He ran television advertisements for weeks without Mr. Chambliss immediately following suit.

Mr. Martin’s surge in the polls coincided with Mr. Chambliss’ support earlier this month of the Bush administration’s $700 billion Wall Street bailout package.

“That’s when things started to fall apart for him,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

The Rothenberg Political Report, which in late September placed Mr. Chambliss in its “currently safe” category, now has handicapped the race as “narrow advantage for incumbent party.”

A survey conducted Oct. 9 by the Atlanta-based InsiderAdvantage polling firm had the contest in a dead heat, with each candidate receiving 45 percent.

Mr. Martin - like Democratic challengers nationwide - has tried to tie Mr. Chambliss to the failed economy and an unpopular White House.

The race “is not really about Martin, it’s about Chambliss and the Bush administration,” said Merle Black, political science professor at Atlanta’s Emory University and a longtime observer of Georgia elections.

Democrats, who supported the bailout more vigorously than Republicans, have downplayed that the public backlash over the bailout caused a spike in Mr. Martin’s poll numbers.

“It’s hard to pull out the bailout from the overall economic crisis,” Mr. Miller said. “I think the main thing that voters are concerned about isn’t so much the bailout as it is the conditions that led to the bailout.”

Mr. Martin’s surprising success forced the first-term incumbent to begin broadcasting attack TV ads two weeks ago against the challenger, portraying him as a tax-and-spend liberal.

An aggressive voter-registration campaign in Georgia this year is another factor working in Mr. Martin’s favor. The effort is expected to boost the state’s black voter turnout, which was about 25 percent in the 2004 elections.

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