ATLANTA — Rep. Wyche Fowler Jr. seized an early lead over Hamilton Jordan, White House chief of staff under Jimmy Carter, Tuesday in the Democratic primary election to name a challenger for Republican Sen. Mack Mattingly.
But Jordan, seeking his first elected public office, was hoping to win enough votes to force Fowler into a runoff next month. Georgia law requires a runoff between the top two vote-getters if no candidate wins more than 50% of the primary vote.
With 17% of the precincts reporting, Fowler led the field of four Democratic candidates with 37,316 votes or 43%, followed by Jordan with 27,883 votes or 32%. State Rep. John Russell, nephew of legendary Georgia Sen. Richard B. Russell, was running a strong third with 18,122 or 21%. Gerald Belsky, a follower of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., had 3,039 or 4%.
Russell had been expected to gain only about 10% of the vote.
The Democratc congressional race for the seat being vacated by Fowler featured a fierce contest between allies of the civil rights movement, State Sen. Julian Bond and former Atlanta City Councilman John Lewis.
The battle to pick a Democratic challenger for Mattingly, who is completing his first term in the Senate, topped the list of statewide and local races on the Georgia ballot.
As election day dawned, Fowler, 45, an urbane and witty Atlanta attorney and former Atlanta City Council president, appeared to hold the upper hand against Jordan.
A weekend poll, conducted by Atlanta television station WAGA-TV among 502 likely Democratic voters, had shown the congressman leading the former White House aide by 15 percentage points, 38% to 23%, but with 31% of the respondents still undecided.
Wants Big Turnout
"If the people of Georgia turn out and vote, we'll win it," Fowler predicted during an eleventh-hour campaign stop in Columbus. "If the turnout is low . . . there'll be a runoff."
The Georgia secretary of state's office, which supervises elections and certifies the results, reported that only one-fourth of the state's 2.5 million registered voters were going to the polls, which would make it the lowest turnout for a primary since 1962.
Oddly enough, a runoff election would give Jordan the edge over Fowler, some political analysts said.
"For starters," Bill Shipp, an Atlanta Constitution political writer said in a recent column, "the runoff has been scheduled Sept. 2, the day after Labor Day. That ensures a poor turnout of voters, and that works to Jordan's advantage.
Paints Fowler as Liberal
"In addition, he is certain to have at his side leaders of the good-old boy network from the Statehouse. And, finally, history will be with him. Primary front-runners in Georgia usually lose out in a runoff to second-place finishers in the first round."
Jordan, 41, the mastermind of Jimmy Carter's brilliant presidential victory in 1976, sought to paint Fowler as the liberal in the Democratic primary contest, charging during one debate that Fowler was "the clear and lonely voice of unions and liberal causes."
At the same time, Jordan portrayed himself as a "good ole boy" and family man with roots in rural Georgia, distancing himself from his image as the "Peck's bad boy" of the Carter White House.
On the campaign trail, he espoused a new-found conservatism and spoke candidly of his much-publicized bout with lymphatic cancer, of which his doctors have pronounced him cured.
Fowler spent much of the campaign defending himself against Jordan's charges and attempting to soften his image in rural and small-town Georgia as the big-city liberal.
'I'm Not an Echo'
He accused Jordan of copying positions of Sam Nunn, the state's popular conservative Democratic senator. "I'm not an echo," Fowler said. "I don't go around saying I'm Sam Nunn one week, Jimmy Carter one week and maybe Mack Mattingly the next week."
The Democratic contest was of significance nationally to the party, which is seeking to regain control of the Senate from the Republicans this year.
Mattingly, who won renomination handily in the GOP primary against three token opponents, captured the seat in a tight race against former Democratic Sen. Herman Talmadge in 1980.
But that contest came as Talmadge was bedeviled by a string of politically devastating incidents during his last term in office, including a divorce, rumors of heavy drinking and a Senate censure for financial improprieties.
"I call Mattingly the 'accidental senator,' " said Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia political scientist. "The Republicans could have won that year with anyone who had two arms, two legs and could talk well on TV."