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In Georgia, the GOP's last stand

With a U.S. Senate runoff next month, Democrats stand to gain a crucial majority. Republicans gather their forces once more.

November 14, 2008|Richard Fausset | Fausset is a Times staff writer.

ATLANTA — The familiar figure of John McCain took the stage Thursday to the roar of an adoring crowd, returning the favor with his greatest hits: the thrusting thumbs-up, the promise of military victory and limited spending, the trademark verbal tropes -- "my friends," "straight talk."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was there, ever the Robin to McCain's Batman.

Wait: Did anyone tell these guys that this election is . . . over?

The presidential question may be settled, but McCain, the vanquished Republican standard-bearer, has joined leaders of both parties in turning attention to Georgia, where incumbent GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss has been forced into a runoff with Democratic challenger Jim Martin -- once considered a longshot candidate -- who was lifted in the Nov. 4 general election by enthusiastic turnout for Barack Obama.

The race is of prime importance because a Democratic victory could help the party amass 60 seats in the Senate, enough to avert a filibuster. That possibility would be a delicious bonus for Democrats, who, come January, will also control the House of Representatives and the presidency as well as the Senate.

To ward off this nightmare scenario, Republicans are inundating Georgia with visits from a host of well-known political A-listers before the Dec. 2 runoff vote.

McCain hinted that his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, might fly down for a quick appearance. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and now a talk-show host, is on deck, with a trip planned for this weekend.

The star-power offensive kicked off Thursday with McCain's appearance at a Chambliss rally in a conservative Atlanta suburb in Cobb County.

Outside a room packed with hundreds of well-dressed Republicans, a man behind a folding table did a brisk business in $5 McCain-Palin T-shirts -- discounted, he said, from $20 during the general election.

McCain, smiling and looking relaxed, exhorted the boisterous crowd to vote and volunteer.

"I didn't think I'd be back out on the campaign trail quite this early, but I'll tell you, there is a lot at stake here," McCain said. "I'm asking you to go back into battle one more time."

McCain was preceded by Chambliss, a big, drawling North Carolina native who called the race a "firewall" against an unchecked liberal agenda.

The number of Senate seats to be controlled by the Democrats increased after the Nov. 4 election from 51 to 57 (including two independents who caucus with Democrats). Democrats could lose one vote if independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut, defects to the Republicans. Lieberman, typically a Democratic ally in the Senate, is in many Democrats' doghouse for actively supporting McCain's presidential campaign.

In addition to the Georgia Senate race, two others remain undecided.

In Alaska, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens -- an incumbent found guilty last month of federal corruption charges -- remains in a close race against Democratic challenger Mark Begich. Votes in that contest are still being counted.

In Minnesota, a recount will determine the outcome of the extremely close race between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and comedian Al Franken, a Democrat.

On election day, Chambliss won 49.8% of the vote to Martin's 46.8%. Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley earned 3.4% of the vote. Chambliss needed a majority to avoid a runoff.

The Georgia contest has been a bruising one, with money pouring in from out of state and with negative ads choking the airwaves.

In a video released this week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reminded voters that McCain once criticized as "disgraceful" and "reprehensible" a 2002 Chambliss campaign ad that questioned the courage of then-opponent Max Cleland, a veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam.

Both parties agree that turnout is the big question mark on Dec. 2. Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley's Washington Center, said that Chambliss probably has the advantage, since Republicans are often more likely to turn out for an election without national marquee names.

But that could change if Democrats deploy their own star: President-elect Obama. The Martin campaign has asked Obama to make an appearance.

But Berkeley's Cain argued that if Obama does so, he could introduce a sour note into his current hymn of bipartisanship and healing.

Nick Shapiro, a spokesman at Obama's transition headquarters, said that he knew Martin's people would love to see Obama head down to Georgia but that "no commitments" had been made.

--

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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