- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, once considered a relatively safe bet for re-election, is fighting for his political life against a fierce Republican challenge helped by a hastily arranged campaign visit from President Bush.

In what could turn out to be the sleeper Senate race of the 2002 election, Mr. Cleland suddenly finds himself in a dead heat against Rep. Saxby Chambliss, a conservative four-term congressman who has been pounding the senator in a series of tough TV ads that accuse him of being too liberal for Georgia.

The race has been slowly tightening for the past month, but most election strategists believed that Mr. Cleland still had the edge in a state that is still strongly Democratic. A Mason-Dixon poll released last week showed the senator holding on to a 6 percentage point lead. Election trackers consistently put the race in the "narrow advantage to incumbent party" column.

But that lead appears to have evaporated. Daily tracking polls by the Chambliss campaign now alternately show Mr. Cleland a point ahead or behind of his rival. Democratic polls similarly show the race close to dead even, state campaign strategists say.

"We're in a dead heat. When we look at the undecided voters, they want someone new. They think Cleland is liberal and out of touch with a variety of issues," said pollster Gene Ulm of Public Opinion Strategies, who is polling for the Chambliss campaign.

The race has turned so dramatically in such a short time that White House political adviser Karl Rove made a late decision this week to send Mr. Bush into the state Saturday to campaign for Mr. Chambliss, according to Republican campaign officials. Two rallies are planned, one in conservative Cobb County outside of Atlanta and the other in Savannah.

Mr. Bush carried Georgia in 2000 with 55 percent of the vote. But the Democrats control the governorship and both Senate seats, though Republicans hold eight of the state's 11 House seats.

Still, despite a compelling background as a Vietnam War veteran who lost both legs and an arm, Mr. Cleland barely won his seat in 1996 with 49 percent of the vote.

The Chambliss campaign has been running a series of "Max the Tax Man" ads, charging that while he voted for the Bush tax-cut plan last year, Mr. Cleland cast votes 115 times to raise taxes and voted against the education-savings accounts sponsored by Georgia's late Sen. Paul Coverdell, a popular state figure.

Two other issues have hurt Mr. Cleland, said Republican state Chairman Ralph Reed. One is his opposition to Mr. Bush's demands for hiring flexibility in the Department of Homeland Security. "That has not gone over well in the state," Mr. Reed said.

The other is the endorsement of Mr. Chambliss by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which Mr. Reed calls "the turning point of the campaign."

"When was the last time an incumbent senator failed to get the VFW's endorsement? I don't know, but it's been a long time," he said.

The National Rifle Association also has endorsed Mr. Chambliss and has been aggressively working in his behalf, his supporters said.

Republicans in the state credit Mr. Chambliss' come-from-behind movement to a strong team of campaign veterans, Mr. Reed's tactical political skills and increased financial support from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But Mr. Ulm said Mr. Cleland's unpopularity with many voters was the major reason for his slide in the past month as the Chambliss campaign escalated its attacks on the senator.

Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, a popular former governor, has been campaigning for his Senate colleague, but Mr. Miller was an early booster of the president's tax cuts and has been a key White House ally ever since.

"Among those most likely to vote, Cleland is extremely unpopular. Just as many people have an unfavorable opinion (43 percent) as have a favorable opinion (47 percent) of Cleland," Mr. Ulm said in a memorandum for the Chambliss campaign.

"Cleland's re-elect score is upside down, and continues to worsen. More voters would prefer a new person (48 percent) than re-elect Max Cleland (41 percent)," he said.

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