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11th Congressional District

Darden: Old hand beats pretender

George "Buddy" Darden likes to say there's little ideological difference between him and Roger Kahn, his opponent in the District 11 Democratic primary.
He's wrong. Sort of.

Darden represented much of the same suburban-to-rural territory for six terms, before Bob Barr defeated him in the 1994 Republican sweep. In Congress, he accumulated a middle-of-the-road record, which Kahn now is picking over in negative ads.

But it's difficult to figure out what Kahn, 56, stands for. While the retired liquor distributor has an admirable record of civic service, his only political experience involves partisan appointments for the Democratic Party. And he's disturbingly unconvincing in articulating his positions.

Take the Northern Arc. He says he opposes it, but he marshals weak arguments against the boondoggle highway (leaving us with the impression that his position simply is designed to contrast with Darden's).

Kahn deserves credit in one area. He argues it's time to reconsider our nation's onerous drug laws. But he also claims he'd scrap the tax code, "reduce regulations," trim the Department of Education, lower taxes and cut $80 billion a year in government "waste." Those promises attract some voters, but the more discerning constituents realize they add up to pandering.

In fact, it's not just difficult to figure out what Kahn stands for. It's also hard to understand why he's running. For the last few years, the Atlanta native has seemed to flail about for an avocation. First, he moved to Key West (where he registered as a Republican voter). Then, he moved back to Georgia, sold off Empire Distributors, purchased a gentleman's farm near Cartersville and promptly ran for Congress.

He has a patrician air that, fairly or not, suggests he views Congress as a potential hobby. Exhibit A: his response to whether someone with his privileged background could relate to the working class. Kahn says there's no reason "someone of substance can't help someone who isn't of substance" -- as if money equals substance.

When Kahn threw $3 million into a campaign to unseat Barr in 2000, Barr poked fun at his city-slicker image by running an ad with an actor who looked like Kahn falling off a horse. Barr's ad was mean but devastating -- perhaps voters saw a grain of truth. Now, Kahn winces when the ad's mentioned and declares it unfair because he never fell off a horse in precisely that fashion.

In 2002, it's Kahn who's running negative ads against Darden. His are less creative, but they're slick. Although Rep. Darden strongly supported seniors, an elderly woman declares in Kahn's ad that "we can't afford" Darden's politics again. A narrator lambastes his support of President Clinton's economic plan. Never mind that Darden's 1993 vote helped extend the nation's longest growth spurt in 50 years.

Unlike Kahn, Darden won't need on-the-job training. He may even retain some seniority if voted back into the House, where he was respected enough to gain a seat on the Appropriations Committee.

Darden's strength is that he's a reliable old hand who genuinely likes glad-handing and deal-making. The 58-year-old lawyer is your basic pro-bidness, Southern Democrat, the kind of guy who'll back prescription-drug price controls and oppose Arctic Refuge oil drilling, but also is strongly pro-defense and won't stand in front of the bulldozers when buddy Roy Barnes starts clearing land for the Northern Arc.

Darden has proven himself effective. During his last two years in Congress, he maneuvered to delay the departure of the 116th Fighter Wing at Dobbins Air Force Base. He also voted for family planning and waiting periods for handgun purchases, which -- contrary to NRA propaganda -- have prevented thousands of criminals from purchasing guns.

He admits that NAFTA, which he backed, has gone too far, and that restrictions need to be put on trade with countries that harm the environment and abuse workers.

None of this is to say Darden's perfect. We don't like his support for the Northern Arc, which could be helped along by allies in Congress. And, particularly after he's spent eight years as a corporate lobbyist, we wonder if he'll risk the wrath of moneyed interests by taking stands for average folks.

But, seasoned by experience and perhaps humbled by his '94 loss, Darden comes across as your favorite uncle -- smooth talking, easy-going, maybe even a bit wise. Clearly, he's the more qualified choice in the 11th.

The 11th District sprawls from west Cobb and east Douglas into west Georgia, then hooks back to metro Atlanta by taking in parts of Bartow and Coweta. Demographics make the Democratic nominee a heavy favorite to beat one of a trio of Republicans running in the other primary.

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