Campaigns in Ga. Senate runoff try to re-energize voters

WASHINGTON -- Despite an economy in peril and a holiday season now officially underway, two Georgia candidates for Senate are working overtime to get voters hooked on politics again.

Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin face a runoff Tuesday in Georgia's Senate race that may turn on who can better energize core supporters.

A parade of high-profile party leaders have visited Georgia to gin up interest in the race. Former president Bill Clinton has campaigned for Martin and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP nominee for vice president, will stump for Chambliss on Monday.

"Part of what you're up against is a little bit of voter fatigue. People are tired," said Chambliss spokeswoman Michelle Grasso. "You want to make sure that your supporters are energized and excited and that's what these (visits) are helping us to do."

The race has captured national attention because Democrats must win in Georgia and Minnesota — where a recount is underway — to secure a 60-seat Senate majority. That expanded majority may allow the party to more easily advance its policies and block a GOP filibuster.

Chambliss received 1.9 million votes in the Nov. 4 election, or 49.8%. Martin got 1.8 million votes, or 46.8%. Georgia law requires a runoff when no candidate receives more than 50%.

A Martin spokesman, Matt Canter, said the campaign hopes to capitalize on the same energy that drove the general election. Democratic volunteers, he said, would work throughout the weekend calling supporters and encouraging them to vote.

"Voters understand that although it's been a long campaign season there's a long way to go," Canter said. "That's always the challenge in a runoff, but this year … there's no question that turnout will be key."

More than a quarter of Martin's support came from counties where blacks make up more than half the population, including the county surrounding Atlanta. Some believe many of those voters turned out principally for President-elect Barack Obama.

"The reason Martin did better is a lot more blacks came to the polls," University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said of the general election. "If black voters aren't turning out, it's hard to see how he wins this."

Obama did not win Georgia last month — Republican Sen. John McCain received 52% of the vote — but Martin is frequently invoking the president-elect's name as he campaigns. One campaign advertisement touts how "Martin will help Barack Obama cut taxes for the middle class."

Since the election, Obama recorded a radio ad for Martin and 25 campaign offices that worked for the president-elect remain open. But Obama has not campaigned for Martin in Georgia and Bullock said it may be hard to get many of those Obama voters to return to the polls Tuesday.

There are signs that interest in the runoff is not nearly as high as it was in the general election. More than 2 million people cast an early ballot before Nov. 4 compared with 345,564 who have voted early in the runoff, Georgia Secretary of State data show.

In addition to Clinton, Martin has brought in former vice president Al Gore and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile,the first African-American woman to run a presidential campaign, to stump for him. McCain, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani have campaigned for Chambliss.