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Incumbent vs. invisible: Chambliss and Martin

The juggernaut and the workhorse in U.S. Senate race



Have you seen Jim Martin?

After a late entrance into this year's U.S. Senate race and a hard-fought primary and runoff, the former state legislator won the Democratic nomination last month. Since then, the candidate's been difficult to find, either on the air or in person. Meanwhile his incumbent Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss, is showing up on TV so much he deserves his own channel.

"My young Democrats aren't talking about working for Jim Martin," says Chris Grant, a Mercer University political scientist and former staffer to Max Cleland, whom Chambliss unseated in 2002. "My kids have good Democrat connections. They're not engaged in that campaign; they're engaged in Obama and [U.S. Congressman Jim] Marshall. Martin's the invisible candidate."

But while he runs in the shadows, Martin may be doing just what's needed to stand a chance against Chambliss, a first-term senator whose own job-approval ratings aren't exactly stratospheric.

Walk through the doors of the Martin campaign's Midtown headquarters in the basement of the Biltmore on a Thursday afternoon, and you're greeted by a soundtrack of ringing phones and workhorse copying machines. Calendars list appointments with local unions. Volunteers stuff envelopes advertising a Decatur fundraiser for Martin, a "decent and honest man running for United States Senate." Four workers nip and tuck spreadsheets in the finance office and shuttle reports to the candidate, seated in his office with shirtsleeves rolled up.

"We're running a disciplined campaign," he says. "We know what needs to be done in order to win in November and we're bound and determined to do that."

The mild-mannered state lawmaker says his days have been filled with breakfasts and lunches with environmental groups, churches, local Democratic officials, unions and potential campaign contributors. Fundraising phone calls follow the networking and meetings follow the phone calls.

"It's not about the money," says Daniel Johnson, a recent Morehouse graduate and Martin volunteer, as he stuffs envelopes. "It's about the message and what you do."

But that message may be hard to hear if a campaign doesn't have the money to amplify it. Add to that an incumbent foe in a right-leaning state – one who's reserved air time early and is dedicating the lion's share of the $5.1 million he's raised so far to more ads – and you see the steep hill Martin must climb.

Fueling the Martin campaign's enthusiasm are recent polls showing the former state lawmaker nipping at the incumbent's heels. One commissioned by the Democratic Senatorial Candidate Committee showed Martin six points behind Chambliss. An August Rasmussen poll echoed those results.

And then there's Barack Obama. "It's not a done deal for Republicans this election," says Grant, adding he thinks that Chambliss can be beat. "I can say in Georgia that Obama at the head of the ticket is good, good news. It'll lead to increased African-American turnout, more voters being registered and no stone unturned. It'll mean every last voter will be contacted by a campaign that has the best grassroots network ever. That would benefit Martin. That's something I'd be very concerned about if I were Saxby Chambliss."

But Chambliss already is in better-safe-than-sorry mode. Visit his headquarters in a Cobb County office park, and you'll find what former opponents and campaign managers say is a typical battle plan for the candidate – throw everything at 'em.

"Saxby's on Boortz!" announces a young staffer making a beeline through the office. She buzzes past press clips on corkboards. Large calendars note every day a campaign ad is scheduled to air (unlike Martin's, the calendars are nearly full). Charts list heavy hitters and to whom they'll pen letters of support. YouTube videos are being edited, and slick ads are filmed down the street. A Facebook invitation welcoming students back to college reached 1.3 million sets of eyeballs. This week alone, 20,000 letters and postcards will be distributed to voters. That's not to mention the warpath Chambliss has blazed across the state to remind voters that "Yes, I'm your U.S. senator, and yes, I'd like your vote."

Besides money, Chambliss has Tom Perdue. Perdue, an Americus native who's coordinated more than 100 political campaigns, is known for aggressive tactics and masterful use of all forms of media.

"Our approach is to run the race as if we're 10 points behind every day, but we have a chance to catch up," he says. "It makes no difference who your opponent is when you run your race that way. And there've been times in his political past when he was 10 points behind, believe me."

Perdue is quick to pooh-pooh polls that show Martin gaining ground, however, adding that for the last 10 years post-runoff surveys have tended to show such a margin. "Polls are a snapshot of today," he says. "You have to take them in context and roll them."

But Martin's supporters point out that Chambliss' approval ratings linger only around 50 percent – usually a sign of weakness for an incumbent.

"Saxby's been in the Senate for six years," Martin says. "I've been in the race for less than six months. So it's not surprising to me that people have seen Saxby and they haven't seen me. What's remarkable is that they haven't seen more of Saxby."

So far, the campaign's been civil – that all could change once Martin amasses funds to convey his message. He's criticized Chambliss as a "rubber stamp" of President Bush. But there's always the concern that should Chambliss' lead continue to winnow, the knives could come out, much in the same way Democrats accused the Republican of smearing Cleland in 2002 with a controversial ad opponents say aligned the former war veteran with Osama bin Laden.

"Right now I can't honestly tell you if we are going to be discussing our opponents' records or not," Perdue says. "But we are well-prepared to discuss his record. So far the campaign seems to be focused from all three sides on what should, could and can be done to make America stronger and more economically sound and to strengthen education. If that's the way the race goes, there's probably very little they'll do to talk about past records. But if it does – we're ready for that, too."

With lots of party money and the national electorate trending their way, Senate Democrats hope to pick up five to seven seats this year. But it's still unclear whether national Democrats will view Martin as a candidate worth the risk of giving major funds.

The state party late last week quietly shifted resources to his campaign team and there is hope that all those breakfasts, luncheons and fundraiser dinner parties Martin is attending will pay off. Sources with inside knowledge of the campaign promise the coming weeks will deliver a strong message.

The all-important question remains how much cash he can raise and how soon, however. Martin's tight-lipped about how much he's raised since the runoff, but he claims confidence: "We believe we're going to have enough money to do what we need to do to win this race."

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