Obama Enters Georgia Race, Symbolically

(By John Amis -- Associated Press)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

One week after his historic victory, President-elect Barack Obama has become a critical figure in Georgia's runoff election for a Senate seat, a contest that will help determine the size of the Democratic majority Obama will have to help move his agenda.

In campaign commercials and surrogate appearances for the candidates on the Dec. 2 ballot, Obama has been symbolically injected into the race, putting his political clout to an early test.

Former state representative Jim Martin (D) has embraced Obama in advertisements touting Obama's stirring election-night speech and in issue statements proclaiming his willingness to work with the incoming president. More than 100 Obama campaign volunteers, mostly foot soldiers from neighboring states, are heading to Georgia to help with voter turnout operations.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R), the first-term incumbent, has called the runoff the first race of the 2010 midterm elections. A parade of top Republicans is stumping for Chambliss, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who on Thursday will make his first political appearance since losing to Obama last week. McCain's former running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has a standing invitation to appear for Chambliss, as do several other aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

"It all comes down to Georgia. Don't give Obama a rubberstamp Senate," the National Republican Senatorial Committee declares in an advertisement that dominates its Web site's home page. The ad includes images of newscasters announcing the results of the presidential election and the growing Democratic majorities in Congress.

The Georgia race is one of three undecided Senate battles in the 2008 campaign, all of which Democrats need to win to reach their goal of a filibuster-proof 60 seats.

Democrat Al Franken trails Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) by 206 votes out of 2.9 million cast. They appear headed for a recount that might not conclude until mid-December. In Alaska, state officials are set to resume counting today the 91,000 ballots left to determine whether Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) holds on to his lead, currently at 3,200 votes, over Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D).

Georgians must head to the polls again because no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote Nov. 4. Chambliss finished ahead of Martin by about 110,000 votes, but his total share was 49.8 percent because a Libertarian candidate won nearly 4 percent of the vote.

"This is a full-fledged campaign in Georgia. This is our priority right now, because it's a real campaign, unlike the other races," said Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the NRSC.

The Martin-Chambliss race does have its share of anomalies, however. Because the first round of balloting has not been officially certified, early voting for the runoff will probably last two weeks. Early voting for the Nov. 4 election began in late September.

Also, campaign officials are weighing how to handle an election whose final days will intersect with the Thanksgiving weekend and the launch of the holiday season. Standard campaign activities such as door-to-door canvassing and phone banking might not be as effective with voters who are traveling or getting an early start on Christmas shopping.

In the first round, Martin criticized Chambliss for supporting the $700 billion federal rescue plan for the nation's financial system. Chambliss pounded Martin for supporting tax increases while serving in the state legislature.

But the overriding issue in the race is Obama's election. His advisers declined to comment on whether Obama would campaign in Georgia, as then-President-elect Bill Clinton did in a runoff Senate election in the state in December 1992. In that race, the Democratic candidate eventually lost.

Turnout is expected to drop precipitously in the runoff, with no other statewide race on the ballot and -- particularly for African Americans, who turned out in huge numbers in Georgia last week to help make history -- no Obama to vote for. That is why Martin is crossing his fingers that Obama will stump on his behalf.

"Of course, there has been an invitation to Senator Obama. We would welcome him here, but we realize he's busy," said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the candidate.

The Martin campaign hopes to maintain the momentum of last week's turnout for Obama, who narrowly lost the state but received 500,000 more votes than 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry. Martin launched his runoff campaign with a TV advertisement that showed clips of Obama's victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park, with the message: "Barack Obama: Unite America. Jim Martin will help him."

Chambliss has invited every prominent Georgia Republican to appear with him and McCain in Atlanta. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is expected over the weekend, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney may appear soon. The approach is simple, aides said: to appeal to the state's traditionally conservative base.

"We need to make sure someone is in the Senate to hold the line on Georgia values. Jim Martin would essentially be a lapdog," said Ashley Nelson, a spokeswoman for Chambliss.

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