- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

JONESBORO, Ga. If the Republicans' attempt to unseat Max Cleland this year is to succeed, they'll have to find a way to counter the kind of support Georgia's senior senator found at American Legion Post 258 during a recent campaign stop.
"I'd rather be a friend of Max Cleland's than be president of the United States," the post commander said, introducing Mr. Cleland, a 59-year-old veteran who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War.
Mr. Cleland is running for re-election and counting on that kind of admiration, three years of campaigning and 30 years in Georgia politics to carry him back to the Senate in a state with a heavy military presence and conservative Democratic voting tendencies.
This is Mr. Cleland's seventh statewide race. He says he still gets voters who remember him leading their class through the state Capitol 20 years ago during one of his four terms as secretary of state the kind of constituent relations that can't be bought through mailings.
"That's the difference," Mr. Cleland said. "That means there's a likelihood that I'll not only survive, but thrive. [The race is] not just mine to lose, but mine definitely to win."
In 1996, Mr. Cleland won the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn by a margin of a little more than 1 percent of the vote after surviving a race with Republican Guy Millner, who spent $10 million to Mr. Cleland's $3 million.
This year he expects things to be different: As an incumbent, he'll probably have his own $10 million to counter his Republican opponent, likely to be four-term Rep. Saxby Chambliss, who chose not to run in a redrawn House district.
Mr. Cleland's path to the general election is clear, but Mr. Chambliss' is not. He must first beat state Rep. Bob Irvin in the primary Aug. 20, something he was reminded of during a recent campaign swing around the northwestern part of the state. Mr. Chambliss was greeted by a costumed chicken at several stops reminding voters of Mr. Irvin's charge that Mr. Chambliss is ducking debates.
Still, President Bush has come to his aid raising $1.4 million for Mr. Chambliss in March and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has run two television ads on his behalf, a symbol of support in the primary and the party's belief that he has a shot to unseat Mr. Cleland.
Thanks to the president, Mr. Chambliss outraised Mr. Cleland in the first quarter of this year, though he trails in overall funds. Through March 31, the most recent reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Mr. Chambliss had raised $2.7 million, and Mr. Cleland had raised $4.5 million. Mr. Irvin reported having raised more than $500,000 for his campaign but had liabilities of nearly $350,000.
Opinion polls also show Mr. Chambliss trailing badly in a head-to-head match with Mr. Cleland, with the senator above 50 percent and Mr. Chambliss hovering around 30 percent.
Merle Black, an Emory University professor, said Mr. Cleland won last time with strong support from blacks and enough votes from white Democrats and independents.
"I think he'll be tough to beat for a Republican," Mr. Black said. "I haven't seen any indication thus far that he's lost the pattern of support he had in '96."
But Georgia has a bipartisan voting history in senatorial contests, and even Mr. Cleland's campaign expects that once Mr. Chambliss' name recognition as the Republican in the race grows, the race will be a 55-45 affair. Then it's up to Mr. Chambliss to close the rest of the gap something he says he'll do by tying Mr. Cleland to unpopular Northern liberals.
"In 1996, folks thought they were sending another conservative Democrat to the U.S. Senate, and he has been anything but that," Mr. Chambliss said in Summerville. "He votes a lot more often with Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton than he does with Zell Miller."
Mr. Miller, Georgia's other Democratic senator, broke with a majority of his party on disputed votes 58 percent of the time in 2001 the most of any Democrat. Mr. Cleland came in at 22 percent enough to rank him sixth-most oppositional among Senate Democrats.
But Mr. Miller, a broadly popular figure in Georgia who served as governor or lieutenant governor for a quarter-century, has endorsed Mr. Cleland and is expected to make ads and campaign for him. Mr. Black said Mr. Chambliss will have to point to specific votes to convince voters of Mr. Cleland's record.
Both candidates hope to capitalize on higher profiles during the war on terrorism. Mr. Cleland, as a veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has become a sought-after figure on television talk shows.
But Mr. Chambliss expects an even bigger boost from his post as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee's subcommittee on terrorism, and to contrast that with Mr. Cleland.
"Today, Max Cleland is so out of touch with Georgia, so out of touch with people in our state, he's not involved in the decision-making process with people in his own party, much less the White House," Mr. Chambliss said to a small crowd of supporters in Summerville. "I'm pleased to be able to go down to the White House when [the president] calls and talk to him about issues that are critically important, whether it's agriculture, defense or terrorism and I'm down there a lot, because we are in a time of crisis."
On that, he got a big pat on the back from the president at the March fund-raiser: "I value his advice on terrorism," the president said. "He's been in the Oval Office to give me sound, solid advice. And I've listened to it every time he's come in there."


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide