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Georgia Runoff Gives GOP Angst

The December runoff between Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and former state Rep. Jim Martin (D) has become one of the final battlegrounds of the 2008 cycle and could well be the key to Democrats’ winning a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate come January.

And yet, two weeks removed from the Nov. 4 elections — with national figures descending on the state and both parties airdropping massive amounts of cash there — many Republicans are still looking back and scratching their heads about how Martin made a competitive race out of a contest that many once thought would be a slam-dunk.

Those Republicans tend to agree that it wasn’t the strength of Martin’s campaign that put Chambliss in such a precarious position. A series of policy positions taken by the first-term Senator left him struggling with his party’s base, and then the financial meltdown and the controversial bailout bill created a perfect storm of bad press that put the Senator in a particularly vulnerable position at a crucial moment. Then national Democrats exploited the opening with a massive spending blitz.

But some state Republicans are also casting blame on what they describe as a poorly run campaign that had to be resuscitated in the final weeks before the November election by a National Republican Senatorial Committee that already had plenty of other contests to worry about.

One Georgia Republican insider last week pointed the finger at Chambliss’ longtime political strategist Tom Perdue for putting together a weak direct-mail program and “substandard” and “impersonal” television commercials during the crucial late summer and fall months.

Known in Georgia for his hard-nosed tactics, Perdue has been credited for engineering Chambliss’ defeat of then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) in 2002 in a race remembered largely for its nasty ads.

Perdue’s other monumental victories were also in races where his candidate was challenging an incumbent. He masterminded the late Sen. Paul Coverdell’s (R-Ga.) upset victory over then-Sen. Wyche Fowler (D) in 1992 and was instrumental in former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) defeat of then-Sen. Jim Sasser (D) in 1994.

“There are a lot of people that are not real happy with the campaign Tom Perdue ran in the general election,” the source said last week. Sources indicated that that sentiment reached a boiling point about three weeks before the general election, just after the bailout vote.

Chambliss had already earned some enmity among his conservative base in Georgia by supporting a compromise immigration package last year. Then in early August he emerged as a founder of the “Gang of 10” Senators who were pushing a bipartisan energy compromise that advocated both oil drilling and alternative fuels. Neither position helped him with his base, but Chambliss’ support of the financial bailout appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. While fellow Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) also supported the bailout, none of the state’s Republican House Members — who, unlike Isakson, were up for election in November — voted for the bill.

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