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GOP Battle Lines Redrawn in Georgia

Politics: As Democrats use redistricting as a weapon in a war for House seats, two conservative Republicans are pitted in a head-to-head matchup.


DULUTH, Ga. — A relentless foe of President Clinton, a hero to gun owners, a federal prosecutor under President Reagan, Rep. Bob Barr should be a shoo-in for reelection this fall in the heavily Republican northern suburbs of Atlanta.

But first he must survive a fight for his political life against a fellow Republican whose conservative credentials are just about as strong as his.

Barr, a four-term House member who became nationally known as an early and forceful advocate of Clinton's impeachment, must face five-term Rep. John Linder in this year's marquee House Republican primary.

The reason for this matchup: an aggressive Democratic attempt to gain as many as four House seats in Georgia by redrawing the state's congressional district boundaries. Democrats hope their gains in Georgia will help them recapture the House, which Republicans now control by a 222-211 margin (plus two independents).

So, on Aug. 20, Republican voters in Georgia's redrawn 7th District will send either Barr or Linder into unwanted retirement.

It's a tough choice between down-the-line conservatives, though Barr is far more outspoken and a shade more populist.

As the two foes crisscrossed these suburbs in campaign sport utility vehicles during last week's congressional recess, Barr sought to distinguish himself as a conservative who leads.

Well aware that many voters love him or loathe him, Barr predicted that the GOP partisans who decide the race will conclude: "Hey, this is a guy who knows what he talks about; he understands the issues; he's not afraid to take a position. Hey, he's a leader."

Many social conservatives across the country revere Barr as one of 13 House prosecutors in Clinton's 1999 impeachment trial in the Senate and as a fervent supporter of gun rights. Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Assn., has stumped for him this year. So has talk radio host Oliver L. North.

But Linder, who rose to high levels in the House when fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich was speaker, can make a strong case for himself. He sits on the Rules Committee, which sets the terms of debate for nearly all major legislation, and could become its chairman in a few years. "You don't claim leadership," Linder said. "You earn it."

Should Barr lose, he would be the fifth impeachment manager to leave Congress. Another manager, Rep. Stephen E. Buyer of Indiana, defeated Rep. Brian D. Kerns last month in the year's only other contest between House GOP incumbents.

Although Barr, 53, probably is the better known of the two incumbents in the district, the 59-year-old Linder holds a slight geographic edge. He represents about a third of the people who live in the new district; Barr represents about a fifth. Both candidates have moved into the district within the last year.

Both claim that their own polls show them leading, and there are no independent surveys to prove either wrong. Each has banked several hundred thousand dollars to finance radio, television and direct-mail advertising, and the campaigns could spend more than $4 million combined.

Certain that the electorate will be conservative, both candidates are running hard to the right. Barr touts his A-plus rating from the NRA, but Linder notes that Heston's group gives him an A.

Linder talks up a proposal to abolish the federal income and corporate taxes and replace them with a national sales tax. Barr says he would like to get rid of the IRS too. Linder lionizes Reagan. Barr, named by Reagan in 1986 to be U.S. attorney for northern Georgia, calls him "the greatest president of the 20th century." Both are reliably anti-abortion.

Barr, from his perch on the House Judiciary Committee, has one crusade that separates him to a degree from Linder and some GOP leaders: He regularly pushes for civil liberties and voices concerns about expansion of the government's police powers. In an appearance before a civic group recently, Barr recited what he called a "law of the universe": "Once you surrender power to the government, you don't get it back."

Republicans are gnashing their teeth at the thought of losing one of these conservative stalwarts. Analysts wonder why it's happening.

"The thing that baffles me," said Bill Shipp, editor of a newsletter about Georgia politics, "is that one of them is going to destroy the other one. Why are they letting that occur?"

Last fall, GOP strategists, including state party chairman Ralph Reed and Rep. Thomas M. Davis of Virginia, chairman of the party's House campaign committee, tried and failed to broker an alternative to a Barr-Linder race.

Linder claims that Barr could have run in another district to the west, the newly drawn 11th, which includes much of the territory Barr now represents. He cited a poll commissioned in October by party strategists in Washington that showed Barr could win that district.

Barr brushes aside that scenario, arguing that Democrats rigged the 11th District to make it inhospitable for Republican candidates.

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