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Perdue will be a hard man to beat

Mark Taylor needs to discredit incumbent to win, polls say



Over the next two months, voters can expect to see Mark Taylor tout his lottery credentials, mend fences with former Cathy Cox supporters and sell his populist plans to help low-income Georgians. But the Democratic nominee for governor will simply be spinning his campaign wheels unless he can achieve a much more difficult objective.

"For Taylor to have any chance against Sonny Perdue -- and this is true for most races -- he has to absolutely discredit the incumbent," says Bill Shipp, a political columnist who appears on TV's "The Georgia Gang."

But how do you besmirch the record of a sitting governor who hasn't left much of a record to attack?

"The reality is that Perdue has a very modest record of achievement," says Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor. As a result, Perdue has ruffled far fewer feathers than his predecessor, Roy Barnes, whose many initiatives -- reforming schools, shifting transportation funding and changing the state flag -- made him legions of enemies across the state.

A do-nothing first term has traditionally heralded a return to the Governor's Mansion, says Shipp, pointing out that the strategy paid off for George Busbee and Joe Frank Harris. The energetic and omnipresent Zell Miller, on the other hand, barely won re-election against a Buckhead tycoon who'd never held public office.

The most obvious glitch in Perdue's uneventful gubernatorial legacy is the more than $1 billion in cuts he made to public school funding during his first three years in office. With Georgia schools still ranked near the bottom of the heap nationally, Taylor is expected to spotlight Perdue's decision to delay the class-size reductions promised by Barnes while ordering up $1 billion in corporate tax cuts.

But Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia, says the governor is already addressing these potential weaknesses. Perdue's first campaign ads blame his early budget cutting on a weak economy, an explanation Bullock believes will wash with most viewers. A recent TV spot claims Perdue has reduced class sizes and committed $1 billion to schools -- without mentioning that he's the guy who took away the $1 billion in the first place.

In fact, Perdue's new campaign slogan, "Sonny did" -- and the accompanying boasts of such take-charge actions as temporarily lifting the state gas tax during the post-Katrina price spike -- appears calculated as an antidote to criticism that he's been the Georgia political version of Garfield the Cat.

So where does that leave Taylor? Most likely, looking for ways to exploit dissatisfactions with the governor that voters don't yet know they have.

"With a challenger behind in the polls to an incumbent who hasn't incited much anger, you can expect to see a scorched-earth campaign," Bullock says. "One tactic may be to portray the Republicans as the party of sleaze," using Perdue's controversial purchase of Florida swampland from a political contributor as an opening.

Another avenue might be to blame Perdue for Georgia's recent weak economic growth and loss of manufacturing jobs in rural areas, says Shipp, adding, "It's going to be very difficult to convince voters that Perdue is hurting them."

Still, he notes that the polls now showing Perdue far ahead may soon be as obsolete as those which predicted Cox would win the primary -- especially given Taylor's strength as a campaigner. "It may look at this point like Taylor's beaten," says Shipp, "but we haven't even begun the real race."

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