Georgia's Senate Runoff: Where's Obama?

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Stephen Morton / AP

Sarah Palin campaigns for Republican Saxby Chambliss.

In Georgia, it's almost as if the election hasn't ended. National political heavyweights like Bill Clinton, John McCain, Sarah Palin and Al Gore have stormed through the state to remind its citizens that history is still at stake. On Tuesday, Georgia goes to the polls to decide a seat that could inch Democrats closer to a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. The prospect of such a legislative advantage has the Republican incumbent in this red-leaning state billing himself as as the final "firewall" against the agenda of Barack Obama.

"Jim Martin, my opponent, is committed to doing everything that the President-elect wants him to do," Chambliss said on Fox News Sunday. "And I'm simply not going to do that... If we give [Obama] a blank check... it will not be in the best interests of the country." Palin made election-eve appearances to support him, echoing his position that winning the state would not only stymie the Democratic majority in the Senate, but would help rebuild a battered G.O.P. "It takes rebuilding," she told an audience of 3,000 in Augusta. "And I say, let that begin here in Georgia tomorrow."

The Georgia runoff, however, is one key political celebrity short — much to the detriment of Democratic challenger Jim Martin. President-elect Barack Obama did not make an appearance in Georgia. He did record a radio ad for Martin and robo-calls, but that's all. And now Democrats fear that the surge in black voters that made Martin competitive on Nov. 4 may not materialize on Dec. 2. "It may be that for some voters the real election was a few weeks ago and that this is just details," says Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. "Obama on the ballot increased turnout and now people just aren't as motivated to vote for Martin." An appearance by Obama might have changed the momentum. "That was the only card [Martin] had to play at this point," says Charles S. Bullock, a political science professor at University of Georgia.

Chambliss was forced to remain in campaign mode against Martin because of a state election law that requires a runoff if neither candidate wins 50% plus one additional vote. The results of the Nov. 4 election were Chambliss 49.8%; Martin 46.8% and Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley with 3.4%. Right now Martin trails Chambliss in polls by as many as five percentage points. The Martin campaign says that speculation that Martin is trailing because blacks aren't drawn to support him without Obama in sight is "one of the vicious campaign tactics Chambliss is famous for." Chambliss, for his part, has a reputation for merciless politicking. He rose to power in 2002 by playing on voters' post-9/11 fears, declaring that Democratic incumbent Max Cleland, a triple amputee and Vietnam veteran, would be soft on Osama bin Laden.

The Martin campaign insists it is not concerned by the Obama absence. However, its concern for black voter turnout is apparent. Martin was scheduled to appear in Atlanta Monday with the hip-hop star Ludacris, the goal being to get African-American voters back to the polls. Chambliss, for his part, was scheduled to appear with Palin in four events on Monday, focusing on encouraging voters in Republican strongholds to come to the polls one last time. The Chambliss line about being the firewall against an Obama agenda is resonating with voters. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 52% of Georgia voters say they would be less likely to vote for Martin if it meant the Democrats would gain a 60-seat majority in the Senate. Meanwhile, 9% of those planning to vote for Martin said the thought of a filibuster-proof Senate makes them less likely to vote for him.

"If anyone could have had an impact on Martin's fortunes, it would have been Obama," Black says. "My thinking on why he may not have made a personal visit to the state was because it looked like Martin wasn't going to win and he didn't want to start off with the defeat of a candidate he endorsed." Martin campaign spokesperson Matt Canter reiterates that the President-elect has been very supportive of the campaign, not only with ads and robo-calls but with the support of his formidable campaign team on the ground. "Clearly [Obama] is focused on the critical needs of our country right now and being here in person is not possible for him," Canter says. "But there is incredible excitement and enthusiasm for the change he wants to bring to this country right now and that translates into a desire among voters here to elect someone who will work with the new President and work across the aisle to move his agenda forward." Unless, of course, Georgians decide that they don't want the next President to have that easy a ride in Congress.