Sen. Max Cleland is a hawk on national defense and President Bush’s vice-presidential running mate, to judge from the Georgia Democrat’s TV ad.
The 30-second spot shows Mr. Cleland, a Marine Vietnam war hero and triple amputee, in his wheelchair chatting with Mr. Bush as an announcer says, “Today, Max Cleland is a respected leader on national security who supports the president on Iraq.”
Mr. Bush has an approval rating of 71 percent among all Georgians, but the presidential election, of course, is two years off. Mr. Cleland, with four weeks left to try to clinch his second Senate term, is portraying himself as a Bush ally to gain support among conservative Georgia voters.
Meanwhile, a TV spot by Rep. Saxby Chambliss, the Republican challenger, portrays Mr. Cleland as not just a Democrat, but one who is “too liberal for Georgia.”
Mr. Cleland’s voting record is well to the left of Georgia’s other Democrat in the Senate, former Gov. Zell Miller. It’s a point Republicans are out to drive home.
Mr. Cleland’s lifetime voting record rates a mere 14 percent from the American Conservative Union, which gives Mr. Miller a 60 percent rating. Mr. Chambliss has a solid 93 percent.
“Folks in Georgia are happy to have a Democrat in the Senate if he votes like Zell, and Max doesn’t,” said Chambliss spokeswoman Michelle Hitt.
But the Cleland campaign was ready for that claim, and has just gone up with a new TV ad that features Mr. Miller saying, “My friend Max Cleland and I have voted the same way four out of five times in the Senate.”
The Cleland camp also suggests Mr. Chambliss is too conservative for Georgia. “Chambliss has a record that puts him to the right of [Republican Rep.] Bob Barr,” said Cleland campaign manager Tommy Thompson.
But the Chambliss campaign accuses Mr. Cleland of “voting to let even elementary school girls get the morning-after [birth-control] pill without parental consent” and for letting government employees’ unions and their money influence his votes on homeland security.
“Cleland has used the Social Security privatization and prescription-drug issues to scare seniors,” said Miss Hitt of the Chambliss campaign.
The race is either somewhat close the Democrat leads by 9 percentage points in a new poll for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or very close, with Mr. Cleland only 4 percentage points ahead in a Republican poll. The Journal-Constitution poll shows 7 percent are undecided. But the Cleland campaign argues even if these undecideds end up breaking 2-1 for the challenger, Mr. Cleland would come out on top.
The newspaper poll suggests, however, that current Cleland “leaners” might be persuaded to take a closer look at Mr. Chambliss. Relatively few voters statewide know much about him. Nearly half, in fact, say they have no opinion of him. That problem may be fixed if more advertising dollars make their way to Georgia from the national Republican campaign committees.
Nonetheless, national Republicans say privately they like Mr. Chambliss’ chances but do not consider the Georgia Senate contest as in quite the same league as the top three Senate contests they’ve targeted for money and attention: Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota.
The racial component of the electorate, meanwhile, is expected to be an important perhaps, determining factor in the outcome of the Cleland-Chambliss contest.
Blacks make up 29.2 percent of Georgia’s population, according to the Census Bureau. The Journal-Constitution poll finds 81 percent of blacks supporting Mr. Cleland and 10 percent for Mr. Chambliss. Mr. Chambliss has a healthy lead of 59 percent to 38 percent among white men, but Mr. Cleland leads among white women by 48 percent to 43 percent.
The contest may hinge on the percentage of black voters who say they will vote for Mr. Cleland and who actually show up at the polls. Republicans are counting on a drop-off in black turnout in Atlanta’s suburban DeKalb County. Black voters there blame the Democratic leadership for the primary-election defeat of Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney by a more centrist, leadership-backed black Democrat.
Mr. Chambliss, for his part, looks to boost his voter turnout and his campaign coffers with the help of the president, who will return to Atlanta on Oct. 17 to campaign for him.
Mr. Chambliss’ aides claim he has steadily secured his own voter base, citing polls showing 63 percent of Georgia Republicans favoring him in June, 72 percent in August and 83 percent now.