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Rising from the ashes

A flutter of life in the Democratic corpse

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I was showing off my carpal tunnel surgery scar to Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor at a pre-election victory party for Mayor Shirley Franklin in Cascade Heights. Taylor has amazing recall -- I shook hands with him a year ago while wearing a brace and he remembered it.

As we talked, a young guy with a square jaw walked up. His name is Scott Holcomb. It turned out he was planning to announce that he was running as a Democrat for Georgia secretary of state.

He's a former U.S. Army captain who served in Bosnia and Iraq. His resume reminds me of Paul Hackett, the Democratic veteran who got 48 percent of the vote in a special congressional election this year in an Ohio district that had voted 64 percent for President Bush last year.

I was surprised that anybody with a strong resume was jumping into Georgia politics on the side of the Democrats. I'd thought Georgia Democrats were toast.

In recent weeks, I had lunch with a couple of old-time political observers who said that if the Democratic nominee for governor -- either Taylor or Secretary of State Cathy Cox -- doesn't win next year, the state party will collapse into a shell of its former self, handicapped by the perception that it was the "black party" in a mainly white state.

For decades, the Democrats were a crazy-quilt coalition where you heard everything from "y'all" to "yo." That quilt has been shredded. In just two elections, Georgia Democrats lost the governor's office, two U.S. Senate seats and control of the Georgia House and Senate.

Georgia Republicans are downplaying last week's Democratic victories, which were highlighted by Tim Kaine's win in the Virginia governor's race. Marty Klein, the Georgia Republicans' political director, notes that Kaine was a lieutenant governor supported by the popular outgoing governor, Mark Warner, while Georgia's incumbent Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue got a 56 percent approval rating in a recent poll and was ahead of both Taylor and Cox.

But President Bush's free-falling poll numbers and Kaine's victory have given Georgia Democrats a spark of life. It's as if the little red glow in E.T.'s chest is starting to shine from the party's corpse.

"If Democrats can win in Virginia, they can win anywhere," says former Gov. Roy Barnes. "That state as a whole is as Republican as Gwinnett County."

I met Holcomb for coffee last Thursday at a Starbucks on Peachtree, two blocks south of the office where he practices securities law for Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan.

Holcomb has little political experience but makes a case that his Army and legal careers are tailored for secretary of state. He helps companies and individuals on issues with stocks -- one of the areas the secretary of state oversees. At one point in his Army career, he worked on the Bosnia elections, and that's the role he seeks in Georgia -- to ensure "open, fair elections in which every vote is counted, and counted as cast."

The secretary of state's role is vital, as Democrats are painfully aware from the critical losses of Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 in the presidential races. In both states, the secretary of state was a Republican involved with Bush's campaign. Many Democrats still believe the elections were tainted.

Now's usually the point in the calendar when each party's candidates play musical chairs to determine which seat they'll try to snag. Until last week, the Georgia primary had fewer players than chairs. But there's nothing like the prospect of victory to get more folks in the game.

Holcomb will know in a week or so whether he'll face another Atlanta lawyer in the Democratic primary. Gary Horlacher, an Alston & Bird attorney with a quarter-century of political experience, is contemplating a run for secretary of state.

Meanwhile, former state Sen. Carol Jackson, who was in the race, is thinking instead about challenging state Sen. Nancy Schaefer, R-Turnerville. And state Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, who heads the Democrats' state Senate campaign committee, says he's suddenly getting calls from prospective candidates that convince him the party has a chance to retake control of the chamber.

Republicans already have been scrambling for chairs. State Sen. Bill Stephens is running against Fulton Commission Chairman Karen Handel for secretary of state.

Former state Sen. Perry McGuire, a former Chick-fil-A attorney, left the GOP secretary of state field and announced for attorney general last week, hoping to run against the low-key Democratic incumbent Thurbert Baker. McGuire vowed that for criminals, "my office will be the very hand of God."

Oh, my.

If McGuire gets the nomination, he could join fellow Extreme Christian Ralph Reed and turn the Republican ticket into a thunderous fundamentalist tsunami. This sort of jihad could hurt Perdue's re-election bid -- or help it, depending on where you go to church.

Reed is seeking the Republican nod for lieutenant governor against state Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville. And Reed is fighting nearly constant revelations about his relationship with sordid GOP lobbyist "Casino" Jack Abramoff.

So far, the Democratic field for lieutenant governor has failed to draw a big name. The two candidates are former state Sen. Greg Hecht of Jonesboro and former legislator Jim Martin, an Atlanta liberal. Hecht has launched an Internet ad campaign trying to raise funds as the man to stop Reed from beginning his climb toward the White House.

The lack so far of a warm body to run against one-term Republican Congressman Phil Gingrey highlights the state Democratic Party's continuing weakness. The Gingrey race also demonstrates the ruthless effectiveness of the Republican redistricting. Gingrey's redrawn 11th district in northwest Georgia voted 70 percent for President Bush in 2004. Says Klein: "I'd rather have our team than their team."

At least two Georgia congressional races will draw national attention. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., is being challenged by Max Burns, the Republican he unseated two years ago. The Washington Post's "The Fix" online political column rated Barrow's 12th District seat the eighth most likely to change hands next year. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is jumping into the fray: Barrow is one of 10 "Frontline" candidates targeted for help by the committee.

"The Fix" rated Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., in the 8th District of Middle Georgia, the second most likely to be defeated because his district was redrawn, and he's being challenged by former Republican Rep. Mac Collins. Marshall is an extraordinarily conservative Democrat -- the only one to buck his party on a recent vote over Iraq policy.

Still, Klein says Republicans will try to link Barrow and Marshall to the national Democratic leadership.

In some ways, the Democrats are still stumbling. National Chairman Howard Dean was revealed last week to be a dud as a fund-raiser. State Chairman Bobby Kahn seems to spend his time writing snippy news releases about Perdue.

But then there's a young guy like Holcomb, who says he's met other veterans who want to continue their public service as Democratic elected officials.

As we sipped coffee, he said, "If you think of policy as a ship that sails, Democrats believe the ship sails for everybody, not just first class."

It occurred to me that the Law of Unintended Consequences might result in the Iraq War -- so hated by so many Democrats -- producing a new generation of young Democratic Party leaders with strong and honorable military backgrounds and a deep sense of honor and duty.

I ran that idea past Barnes.

"It certainly would be ironic," he said. "And I think that could happen."

Senior Editor Doug Monroe is a political junkie who just has to unload from time to time. You can contact him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.

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