MOULTRIE, GA. -- Johnny Isakson has been a Republican state legislator for 14 years, but can play the role of Mr. Outside as if he never served a day in office. As the underdog in the governor's race here, he's trying to tap into the nation's sour mood over its politicians and turn the tide against Georgia's Mr. Inside, Zell Miller, lieutenant governor for 16 years and as much a member of the old guard as Georgia can produce.
A Republican has not occupied the governor's mansion in Georgia since Reconstruction and in the well-informed, silver-tongued Isakson the GOP has its best shot at victory in 20 years.
But here in Moultrie, a quiet farming community 30 miles from the Florida border, Isakson runs smack up against the issue that may again deny Georgia Republicans a win. It's neither voter discontent nor insider-outsider politics that stands in Isakson's way. It's the Florida lottery.
Georgia does not have a state lottery, and many of Moultrie's residents regularly slip across the border to play the numbers in Florida. Zell Miller wants to save them the drive. Like all lottery promoters, Miller espouses the lofty notion that a Georgia lottery will raise more money for education programs. But it is the lure of gambling in Georgia that has made this issue dominant in the governor's race.
Miller has so promoted a Georgia lottery that even though Isakson shares his position -- favoring a constitutional amendment to create a state lottery -- voters strongly identify Miller with the issue.
In a recent poll published in the Atlanta Constitution, voters said they still regard the lottery as the defining issue in the campaign, and favored Miller over Isakson by 21 points. More than 72 percent of those polled favor a lottery, and pro-lottery voters said they prefer Miller to Isakson by a 2 to 1 margin.
"His whole campaign is based on the lottery," observed Moultrie Mayor William McIntosh. "I think it's morally bankrupt, and I think it's sad that a whole campaign is hinging on the issue of a lottery."
But McIntosh, who favors Isakson, concedes that the lottery is one of those emotionally charged issues that doesn't lend itself to rational discussion -- especially during a political campaign. His own hometown provides the best evidence of that. Moultrie is in the heart of the South Georgia Bible Belt. Selling liquor by the drink is still illegal here, and residents might be expected to take a dim view of the state's promotion of gambling. But Moultrie was swept up in lottery fever when a local gas station attendant, who'd been driving to Florida every week for two years, won a $3.7 million jackpot in July.
"It's hard to argue against giving the people a chance to dream," McIntosh said.
Miller, 58, is thin-skinned and fiercely proud of his rural roots in north Georgia's mountains. In the Democratic primary, while former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young siphoned off all the national attention in his bid to become Georgia's first black governor, Miller played his single, simple lottery issue to less worldly audiences. He buried Young at the ballot box.
He has used the same strategy in his race against Isakson.
Miller, whose public warmth is conveyed in a broad grin through gritted teeth, tells voters he wouldn't support a lottery except that "hundreds of millions of dollars" are already flowing from Georgia into Florida.
"Those dollar bills might as well be stamped 'Made in Georgia, paid in Florida,' " Miller fumes. "For all practical purposes, we already have a lottery in Georgia. Florida's just getting the money."
The lottery has displaced all other issues in part because the two candidates also hold similar views on other bread-and-butter campaign issues such as abortion, prison reform and the need to upgrade Georgia's public schools. In addition, Georgia's economy has been stronger than many other states. The Atlanta area prospered in the 1970s and 1980s, transforming itself into the financial and trade center of the South.
Still, rural Georgia struggles against poverty and the kind of deep-seated social problems characteristic of a Deep South state: Georgia has the third-highest infant mortality rate and the fifth-highest teenage pregnancy rate in the country. According to a recent study, the life expectancy rate of black men in Georgia is 10 years shorter than the national average.
The state is also mired in a budget crisis and faces a $323 million shortfall in revenues this year, despite a $700 million tax increase passed by the legislature last year.
It is on these issues that Isakson, a 45-year-old real estate executive who lives in an Atlanta suburb, tries to gain ground with his outsider appeal. Recently he went on the attack, railing in a television ad against Miller and the "politics-as-usual" gang in the state house for spending money on government office buildings at the expense of education funding.
"Georgia is going broke," Isakson says on the stump, and he wastes few words letting voters know who he thinks is to blame.
"Johnny Isakson hasn't been a career politician for 23 years," he says. "I've been out making a living and paying taxes just like you. I know when we've had enough. Johnny Isakson is a candidate for change in Georgia and we're going to see to it that what has gone on before never goes on again."
But Isakson's pitch as Mr. Outside has a hollow ring. As House minority leader, he's also part of the state house gang. Besides, national discontent against politicians may not take hold here. Georgians generally don't feel their state is on the wrong track. When polled, Georgians say they are still optimistic about their state's economic health.
A final, fatal blow to Isakson's effort may have been dealt last month from an unlikely source: the International Olympic Committee. Atlanta was named host of the 1996 Olympic Games, and now Georgians are even more optimistic than ever. With a lottery and a shot at some Olympic gold, voters are likely to be even less inclined to throw the old guard out.