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South Georgia may be key to governor's race

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POSTED: October 18, 2010 9:49 a.m.
ALMA — The sun was barely up on a recent weekday morning when Nathan Deal arrived at the Blueberry Inn in this sleepy south Georgia town and began shaking hands with the Republican faithful who had gathered over coffee to meet their nominee for governor.
Later that same day, Democrat Roy Barnes was about 70 miles west in Tifton wooing teachers with his plans to get the state’s schools back on track.
In this hotly contested election year, the road to the governor’s mansion could lead through south Georgia. Both Barnes and Deal say the region is critical to their election strategies.
Anyone needing further proof needs only to look at how much time the candidates are spending there.
Barnes and Deal have each been south of the so-called “gnat line” — which splits middle and south Georgia from the rest of the state — once or twice a week since they won their respective parties’ nominations.
The heavy focus on the vast bottom half of the state comes down to a simple matter of electoral math. Deal hails from north Georgia and will almost certainly perform well in the conservative part of the state he has represented for 18 years in Congress.
Barnes, the former one-term governor from Cobb County, is widely expected to draw support in voter-rich metro Atlanta, the state’s Democratic stronghold.
That means the rest of the state is — at least theoretically — up for grabs.
For Barnes, it means trying to win back the regions that deserted him in his re-election bid. Fueled by anger over Barnes’ push to shrink the Confederate battle emblem on the state’s flag, south Georgia voters turned out in numbers in 2002 and voted against Barnes, helping elect Republican Sonny Perdue.
“South Georgia will decide this race,” said Roger Boatright, chairman of the Bacon County Board of Commissioners. “You have two flawed candidates. I think it really could go either way.”
Libertarian John Monds is a wild card who hails from Cairo in the southwest corner of the state and could pull some local support.
Today, the region — rural and still reliant on agriculture — has been hit hard by economic woes. Many voters there told The Associated Press it was pocketbook issues, rather than partisanship, that would determine their vote.
But it was opposition to Democratic leadership in Washington, in particular President Barack Obama, that got voters riled up. Sometimes, the race for the state’s top spot seemed almost an afterthought.
“People just hate Obama so badly,” Peggy Lee, 54, of Alma said after Deal’s appearance. “It’s hard for some folks here to get past that and see anything else.”
Paul Bennett, 55, a banker from Alma, said he liked that Deal was a businessman who “knows how to meet a payroll.”
“But quite honestly I think more people are paying attention to what’s happening at the national level right now,” Bennett said.
That could be bad news for Barnes. Voters are associating the state’s economic problems with Democrats at the helm in Washington, not Republicans who have led the state for the past eight years.
And in a year of anti-incumbent fervor, some say Deal’s long tenure in the nation’s capital could actually play well.
Darwin Carter, a failed GOP candidate for agriculture commissioner, introduced Deal at the Blueberry Inn by stressing that the former congressman’s deep knowledge of Washington would help defeat “Obamacare.” To beat the enemy, Carter suggested, you have to know the enemy’s game.
“Right now it’s extremely important to have someone who understands Washington in the governor’s office,” Carter said.
Others, past a few cotton fields up the road in Douglas, have different thoughts that suggest the region may be conservative — but not monolithic.
The closure a year ago of a poultry processing plant was a devastating blow to Douglas, residents said. It is set to reopen, but some say Republicans in Atlanta have done little to help.
“I think Roy Barnes might do a better job on the economy,” John Martin, owner of the Hometown Barber Shop, said between cuts. “I lean Republican but to me the most important thing is jobs, and the economy.”
 

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