IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Chambliss foe reaching for Obama's coattails

Political insiders agree that Georgia Senate candidate Jim Martin has neither the money nor the organization to stroll into the Senate chamber without the swish of Barack Obama's coattails.

On Jim Martin's first official day as his party's Senate candidate, the Georgia sun had barely been up for three hours before incumbent GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss started swinging.

At a 10 a.m. news conference on the morning after Martin won last Tuesday's Democratic runoff against DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, Chambliss painted his opponent as the coddled crony of the Democrat that southern Republicans love to hate - Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer of New York. "He's a Chuck Schumer hand-picked guy," Chambliss said of Martin. "And there's no more liberal member of the U.S. Senate than Chuck Schumer."

Indeed, Schumer probably breathed a sigh of relief when Martin reversed a 40-34 deficit to Jones in the initial primary to win a decisive 20-point victory in the August 5 runoff.

Jones, a black candidate who hoped to ride Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's coattails to a primary win, has a bit of a checkered past marked by support for Republicans - including two votes cast for President Bush - as well as by accusations of sexual harassment and rape, although he was never charged in either case.

When Jones boasted of an endorsement by Obama, using a digitally altered photo to simulate a joint campaign appearance, the presidential candidate quickly clarified that he barely knew Jones and certainly did not endorse him.

Now Martin finds himself wading into a general election that will require all of the top-of-the-ticket momentum Obama can provide.

Chambliss, a first-term senator with a reliable conservative record and local kudos for his work as ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has a head start in terms of money and name recognition.

Martin, with his already-limited campaign treasury further depleted by the prolonged primary, might need a perfect storm to pull off an upset.

He can hope to create an echo chamber of anti-Bush sentiment by convincing voters that Chambliss represents the status quo. The incumbent senator's ties to special interests may also prove to be a flashpoint, aided by a recent dust-up over Chambliss' astringent questioning during a Senate hearing of an executive who blew the whistle on a negligent sugar plant; critics accused Chambliss of launching the attack to undermine the case against Big Sugar.

But Chambliss' spearheading of the "Gang of 10" efforts to address the energy crisis could help him look like a solutions-driven compromiser, and the plan has rendered him enough of a maverick on the issue to warrant a sparring session with talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Democrats and some independents might also cast votes of revenge against Chambliss if they are reminded by Martin's allies of the Republican's last campaign.

In 2002, Chambliss defeated Vietnam veteran and triple amputee Sen. Max Cleland after airing an ad that questioned Cleland's commitment to national security and pictured the incumbent Democrat alongside Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, now the GOP's presidential candidate, called the ad "worse than disgraceful" at the time.

"That campaign was so dirty and so vicious that Sen. Chambliss will have to answer for that. That race has been tacked on to this one," said Georgia Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kidd.

Ultimately, though, political insiders agree that Martin has neither the money nor the organization to stroll into the Senate chamber without the swish of Obama's coattails. "Probably the only way Martin could win would be if Obama won Georgia," said Emory University political science professor Merle Black.

If Obama's candidacy energizes black voters and younger voters as vigorously as new voter registration numbers in Southern states might suggest, Martin might be able to overcome the lack of secure financial footing. But short of a jaw-dropping new voter turnout and a big Obama showing in November, Martin is unlikely to climb out of the hole.