If ever a congressional district was tailor-made for Democrats, it is Georgia's 12th -- a long, narrow stretch of southeastern Georgia where Al Gore won 57 percent of the vote in 2000 and African Americans make up 42 percent of the population.
Yet Republican Max Burns, a former college professor and county commissioner, snatched the seat two years ago after making an issue of his Democratic opponent's shoplifting record. Now Democratic challenger John Barrow is struggling to dislodge Burns in one of the closest House races in the country.
Barrow's challenge underscores a larger quandary for Democrats in their battle to recapture control of the House. Democratic leaders exerted considerable effort last year to recruit top-flight candidates. But in many cases, Republicans have overwhelmed the challengers with the power of incumbency, superior fundraising skills and hard-edged ads focused on such hot-button issues as terrorism and same-sex marriage.
The GOP holds a 227 to 205 advantage in the House, and the combination of Republican firepower, Democratic miscues and a controversial Republican redistricting plan in Texas virtually assures the continuation of GOP rule, independent political analysts say.
"There's not a chance in the world, I don't think, of the House turning over," political analyst Charles E. Cook Jr. said last week.
Democrat Paul Babbitt, brother of former Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt, once seemed well positioned to unseat freshman Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.). But Babbitt has run a lackluster campaign, according to some observers, and Renzi appears headed for reelection. Rep. Jon Porter (Nev.), another weak GOP incumbent, has marginalized Democratic challenger Tom Gallagher, a former gambling executive, with hard-hitting TV ads calling Gallagher a political opportunist.
Similarly, Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), who won his first election by 121 votes two years ago, is comfortably ahead of Democrat Dave Thomas. Freshman Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), once a big target for Democrats, appears headed for reelection unless challenger Lois Murphy (D) can get a major lift from Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry.
She is not the only Democratic candidate who had hoped a Kerry surge might help the entire party and create a nationwide trend similar to the one that Republicans enjoyed in 1994. But even as Kerry has closed to a virtual dead heat with President Bush, there seems to be little, if any, coattail effect in House races, according to polls and analysts.
Moreover, several of the most highly touted Democratic challengers turned out to be mediocre candidates, lacking the charisma and drive needed to oust an incumbent, said Bo Harmon of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "It's always difficult to beat an incumbent," he said. "They have so many advantages."
Here in Georgia, Burns has won favor with his constituents by bringing home federal funds for highway projects, colleges and universities, municipalities and rural hospitals. With the help of Vice President Cheney, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (Calif.) and other big-name Republicans, Burns has raised $2.3 million for his reelection campaign, a third more than his Democratic challenger.
Barrow has fought back by portraying Burns as a puppet of the Bush administration and business interests. But Burns has been scoring political points in Georgia's Bible Belt by charging Barrow with "flip-flopping" on same-sex marriage.
The Democrat's problems are compounded by Bush's popularity throughout the South. The Georgia contest has evolved into a referendum on Bush's policies -- with Burns insisting that "our nation is on the right track" and Barrow blasting the administration's record on jobs, the economy, the federal deficit, rising health care costs and education.
"We really have a different vision of how we can get our country up out of the ditch," Barrow said at the close of a debate here last week. "Just about everything that the federal government is doing that's new and different in the last couple of years is hurting us."
There is troubling news for Democrats elsewhere. Rep. David Wu (Ore.), locked in a tough race, recently acknowledged that he had been disciplined in college for "inexcusable" sexual behavior toward a female student. Even the Democrats' rousing special election victories last spring to fill GOP open seats in Kentucky and South Dakota were offset when two conservative House Democrats switched their party affiliation.
Democrat Stephanie Herseth defeated Republican Larry Diedrich in South Dakota's special election in June to succeed William J. Janklow (R) in the state's sole House seat. In the Nov. 2 rematch, Herseth is leading Diedrich in the polls, but some experts say the race still could be affected by the outcome of a hard-fought contest between Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle and former representative John Thune (R).
The race underscores the powers enjoyed by an incumbent, regardless of party, even if the lawmaker has been in Congress only five months. Herseth immediately backed several conservative causes and emphasized her efforts to help the state's ranchers and elderly residents. The strategy has left Diedrich with few avenues for attack and robbed him of some traditional GOP allies. For example, the National Rifle Association endorsed Herseth after she voted with 51 other House Democrats for a bill that would repeal most of the District of Columbia's gun-control laws.
Democrats need a net gain of 12 to 13 seats to reclaim control of the House after 10 years in the minority, an improbable feat short of an eleventh-hour Kerry landslide. Amy Walter, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, says current trends point to only modest changes in the House makeup, with Democrats at best netting three additional seats and at worst losing three.
To achieve even modest gains, Democrats must make strong showings in nearly a dozen tossup races in Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, New York, Texas and Washington state. They must also avert a blowout in Texas, where a Republican redistricting plan engineered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) threatens to end the careers of at least four veteran Democratic House members: Max Sandlin, Nick Lampson, Charles W. Stenholm and Martin Frost.
Democratic House leaders offer a much more optimistic assessment of the political landscape. They say their candidates are approaching parity with the Republicans in fundraising, and they cite polls that show "significant vulnerabilities" among GOP incumbents. Those include veteran Reps. Philip M. Crane (Ill.), Heather A. Wilson (N.M.) and Rob Simmons (Conn.).
"What it boils down to is our incumbents are in a stronger position than they've been in any election cycle," said Greg Speed, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman. "Outside of Texas, we literally don't have any incumbents polling below 50 percent."
But to make inroads, Democrats have to retake seats such as Georgia's 12th Congressional District. "If you lose that seat, it's sort of like missing a layup," Walter said. "Then you have to make a much tougher shot later in the game."
This race should have been a slam-dunk for Democrats in light of the way the 12th was redistricted two years ago. It includes the Democratic stronghold of Athens, home to the University of Georgia; the city of Augusta, shorn of its Republican suburbs; and all of Savannah, with its large black population.
Burns, 55, a folksy former Fulbright Scholar and Georgia Southern University business professor, pulled off a startling upset two years ago after airing ads to capitalize on the disclosure of Democrat Charles W. Walker Jr.'s decade-old arrests for shoplifting and leaving the scene of an accident -- charges that were dropped.
Democrats vowed to reclaim the district this year -- and Barrow, 48, a Harvard-educated lawyer and an Athens-Clarke County commissioner, emerged from a crowded primary field with an impressive showing that averted a runoff.
Barrow, a Clarke County native, seems a good fit for the district: A fiscal conservative and moderate on social policies, Barrow calls the No Child Left Behind Act well intentioned but under-funded. He supports abortion rights, opposes new gun laws and backs an increase in the minimum wage -- a popular stand in an area where 21 percent live below the poverty line.
But Barrow got into trouble by opposing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage last summer during the primary and then endorsing the constitutional amendment that passed the House this fall. Same-sex marriage is a hot issue in Georgia's conservative Bible Belt, and Burns said Barrow's "confused" stand suggests he cannot be trusted on other issues such as taxes, health care and jobs. "This election is about one thing, and that's trust," Burns said. "Who do you trust with your vote? Who do you trust with your values?"
Barrow said voters should be more alarmed that Burns has voted with Bush and business groups on most key issues and that the League of Conservation Voters included Burns on its "Dirty Dozen" list of lawmakers.
Barrow has pummeled Burns for advocating a national sales tax to replace the federal income and excise taxes -- a move he said would shift the tax burden from corporations and wealthy individuals to the middle class and the poor. Barrow also seized a few of Burns's votes against Democratic amendments, during last year's debate over Medicare legislation, to argue that Burns blocked financial assistance to Georgia's cash-strapped rural hospital system.
That charge stung the freshman Republican in a region reliant on rural hospitals. Ways and Means Chairman Thomas, speaking at a Burns fundraiser here last week, denounced Barrow's accusation as "a desperate act." Thomas credited Burns with helping to push through a $25 billion "rural package" as part of the Medicare legislation that will boost per-patient reimbursement to rural hospitals by 1.6 percent.
The race has turned mean spirited and personal as the national parties have begun pouring money into attack ads. In an interview, Burns sniped: "I grew up in rural areas and didn't go to Harvard to learn my profession. If you're in Georgia, people don't think you have to go to Boston to get your education and then return to impose those values."
Roman Levit, Barrow's campaign manager, refers to the Republican as "Mad Max" and says that "in Max's mind it's not enough to say someone is wrong. They have to be declared evil."
Babington reported from South Dakota. Staff writer Juliet Eilperin and Research Editor Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.