- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It’s being billed as the “first race of the 2010 election cycle,” and the national Democratic and Republican parties are furiously pouring money and manpower into the rematch.

First-term Republican incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia is trying to hold off Democratic challenger Jim Martin in a runoff vote to be held Dec. 2, which will help determine whether the Democrats can build a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and may provide an early clue to the clout and coattails of President-elect Barack Obama.

Mr. Martin, a former state senator, features a clip from Mr. Obama’s election-night victory speech in his first ad since last Tuesday’s cliffhanger vote. The former state legislator tells voters in the spot that if he is elected, he will “work with Barack Obama to get our economy moving again.”

The runoff, mandated when neither candidate obtained more than 50 percent of the vote, is proving to be one of the first political gambles for Mr. Obama, with big risks and rewards should he take an active role in the race. Mr. Martin trailed in the first round of voting 49.8 percent to 46.8 percent, with Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley preventing either man from obtaining a majority.

“If Martin can capitalize on the enthusiasm for Obama - and if the Obama campaign agrees to continue operating its extensive Georgia operation for another four weeks - then last Tuesday’s outcome may not matter,” said state political analyst Walter C. Jones of the Augusta-based Morris News Service.

Mr. Chambliss told reporters in Georgia Monday that the contest represented “the first race of the 2010 election cycle.” A Martin win would put Democrats tantalizingly close to a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and complete dominance of the executive and legislative branches.

“Saxby Chambliss’ re-election is critical if we want to have hope that the U.S. Senate can block the redistribution of wealth and the dismantling of our military that will be attempted by the next Congress,” said Republican state Senate President pro tem Eric Johnson of Savannah.

After the Nov. 4 vote, Democrats hold a 57-40 majority in the incoming Senate, with three races - in Georgia, Alaska and Minnesota - still too close to call. With 60 seats, Democrats could defeat minority efforts to filibuster key bills without needing any Republican support.

Recounts are under way in the Alaska race between Republican Sen. Ted Stevens and Democratic challenger Mark Begich and in the Minnesota contest between Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, with the Republican holding a tiny lead in preliminary tallies.

Georgia is the only state where the Senate contest will be decided at the ballot box. Activists and analysts estimate the two parties could spend about $5 million in ads and organizing efforts by Dec. 2.

For Mr. Obama, who lost the state to Republican rival Sen. John McCain by a 52 percent to 47 percent margin Nov. 4, a high-profile presence in the Chambliss-Martin runoff could prove a potent demonstration of his clout, extend Democratic inroads in the South and boost his party’s fortunes on Capitol Hill - if Mr. Martin prevails.

A Martin loss would hand the president-elect an electoral setback even before he takes the oath of office and, Georgia Republicans argue, undercut Mr. Obama’s promises to avoid partisan fights and seek cooperation across the aisle.

There is an unhappy precedent in Georgia for Mr. Obama: The endorsement of President-elect Bill Clinton was not enough for Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler to hold off Republican Paul Coverdell in a 1992 Senate runoff, giving Republicans a strong talking point about the incoming president’s lack of coattails.

Mr. Obama proved reluctant during the presidential campaign to campaign strongly for fellow Democrats in congressional races. He recorded only one television ad, for victorious Democratic challenger Sen.-elect Jeff Merkley in Oregon, and only after Republican incumbent Gordon Smith had run ads claiming he could work closely with Mr. Obama.

Mr. Chambliss, who early in the race had a 30-point lead over Mr. Martin, has angered Georgia’s Republican base on a number of issues, including immigration and the recent $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan, which Mr. Chambliss supported. He ran seven percentage points behind Mr. McCain, while Mr. Martin was just one percentage point below Mr. Obama’s total.

“Ironically, an Obama visit here might actually help Chambliss with his Republican base,” Mr. Jones said.

Mr. McCain is scheduled to campaign in Georgia during the runoff for Mr. Chambliss.

Mr. Martin, meeting with reporters in Georgia Monday, was noncommittal over whether Mr. Obama would campaign actively for him or share his get-out-the-vote ground operation.

With Mr. Obama winning Virginia and North Carolina, the runoff has provoked a fierce debate in Georgia over whether the state will be the next red Southern redoubt to go blue.

Democrats note that Mr. Obama’s 47 percent total was the highest for their party since native son Jimmy Carter’s 1980 race, that black voter turnout increased from 25 percent of the electorate in 2004 to 30 percent in 2008, and that Democrats picked up state Legislature seats in key, fast-growing suburbs.

Republicans counter that they still control the General Assembly and the governorship. Also, both Mr. McCain and Mr. Chambliss outpointed their opponents in a year of historical black turnout, a deep recession and the record unpopularity of Republican President Bush.

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