The diners at Butch’s Family Restaurant gave Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss the warmest of welcomes when he stopped in recently.
They smiled as he moved from table to table, shaking hands and asking after each of them with avuncular concern. A local pastor prayed for Chambliss, calling him a man who “stands for principles we believe in.”
“Aw, I’m getting a hug,” said one middle-aged voter as she lunged toward the silver-haired lawmaker.
The heartwarming scene in this small town south of Atlanta doesn’t seem to square with the image many Democrats paint of Chambliss: a practitioner of “vile” and “despicable” campaign tactics.
Six years ago, Chambliss was elected to the Senate after a bruising battle with the incumbent, Democrat Max Cleland, a decorated veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam. In the final days of the campaign, Chambliss ran an ad that showed images of Osama bin Laden and questioned Cleland’s “courage to lead” in the war on terrorism.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), now the GOP presidential nominee, joined a chorus of protest, mostly from Democrats. A Vietnam War hero himself, McCain said the ad was “worse than disgraceful -- it’s reprehensible.”
Today, Democrats are reveling in the fact that Chambliss -- once considered a shoo-in for reelection -- has seen his double-digit advantage in the polls narrowed to as little as 2 percentage points in recent weeks, a situation probably caused by the nation’s current economic crisis and a weakened Republican brand.
To many Democrats, it feels like payback time.
“We’re delighted to see that this race is tightening,” said David Gordon, a lawyer from Hartwell, Ga. The Cleland ad, he said, was “below the belt and beyond the pale.”
In recent weeks, those sentiments have been echoed on liberal blogs. “We will never forget how he won in 2002,” read one of the milder comments on Daily Kos.
The Georgia race is one of a handful of surprisingly tough battles Republican senatorial incumbents are being forced to wage in what were once considered safe Southern strongholds.
In most of the races, the Democratic challengers, like Chambliss’ opponent, Jim Martin, remain underdogs.
But they are hoping to score upsets as voters fret over the economic crisis and as African Americans turn out in what are expected to be record numbers to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
Democratic victories in these states could help the party achieve a goal that seemed farfetched only a few months ago: a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate -- 60 seats or more -- which neither party has enjoyed since the Carter administration nearly 30 years ago. The Democrats currently hold a 51-49 majority, achieved with the help of two simpatico independents.
In Georgia, however, party leaders say the race against Chambliss is about more than consolidating power in Washington; it is also about avenging 2002 and the infamous ad.
Democrats complained angrily that it criticized Cleland for voting against a Republican homeland security bill, when Cleland had backed a Democratic version that was similar. They were further incensed because Chambliss had not served in Vietnam; he was born in 1943 but received deferments.
This season, Martin’s first TV ad featured a cameo by Cleland, who noted that Martin was a fellow Vietnam veteran. More recently, the 2002 ad’s notoriety has been leveraged to raise money for broader Democratic goals.
This week, Cleland sent an e-mail asking Democrats to help raise $462,000 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which works to elect candidates nationwide. Federal Election Commission filings show the committee has already spent at least $991,000 on ads in Georgia since the race tightened this month.
“In 2002, Saxby Chambliss won his Senate seat in the final days by putting my picture next to Osama bin Laden and lying about me,” Cleland wrote in the e-mail. “It was despicable, but it worked.”
Chambliss, a North Carolina-born attorney who speaks with a soft, kindly drawl, said the race has narrowed because of the economic turmoil that has jangled the nerves of conservatives and liberals alike.
“The economy’s been a major factor, no question about it,” he said. “It’s got people who are conservative just thinking about what direction they want to see the country go, from the presidential level on down.”
Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said Chambliss also upset segments of his base by supporting the comprehensive immigration overhaul bill, which some conservatives derided as “amnesty,” and the $700-billion Wall Street bailout.
“I realize many of you are disappointed in a few votes Saxby has cast as our U.S. senator,” Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine wrote his supporters in an e-mail this week. “I respect your opinions as valid, and I know that Saxby does too. However, the facts are this: Jim Martin is a very liberal Democrat who has more in common with” Obama and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) than with former Georgia Sens. Sam Nunn or Zell Miller, both Democrats.
At Butch’s, voters Russell Sheffield, 68, and his wife, Dollie, had already arrived at this conclusion on their own. They own a mobile home transportation business, and both had misgivings about Chambliss’ support for the bailout. But they were heartened by his other conservative bona fides.
Dollie Sheffield, 66, said she had never considered the Democratic ticket. “They’re too liberal, for one thing,” she said.
Martin, the Democratic challenger, is a former state lawmaker. He is hoping to benefit from a massive turnout among black voters.
In early voting in Georgia through Friday, blacks cast more than 35% of the 967,000 votes tallied. Blacks typically make up about 29% of the state electorate.
“Having Barack Obama at the top of the ticket makes a big difference,” he said.
While Martin has attacked Chambliss for supporting the bailout, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has focused on Chambliss’ advocacy of the FairTax concept, which would replace income taxes with a 23% national sales tax.
One of the committee’s ads claims that the idea, if implemented, would add $20 to a tank of gas -- but it doesn’t mention the elimination of income taxes.
Thus, in 2008, Chambliss finds himself taking umbrage at a misleading TV ad.