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Georgia Democratic Senate Candidate Emerging

Four months after Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) announced he would not seek re-election, Democrats are pinning their hopes on state Attorney General Thurbert Baker as the top choice to defend the seat.

Baker’s emergence as the party’s leading candidate comes after two other high-profile state Democrats resisted overtures to enter the contest — and as Rep. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the only announced candidate in the race, has already amassed a $2 million war chest.

The attorney general traveled to Washington twice in recent weeks and has met with both Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) to discuss his interest in a Senate bid.

However, Daschle and party strategists emphasized that Baker, who argued the last of two redistricting-related court cases on Tuesday, has not made a final decision about running.

“We encouraged him to consider the race,” Daschle said in an interview this week. “We think he would make an outstanding candidate.”

“He is clearly thinking about it but he hasn’t made any final decisions,” he added.

If Baker were to run and win, he would be the first black Senator since former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun’s (D-Ill.) 1998 defeat.

Several sources indicated that now that both the U.S. and Georgia Supreme Court redistricting cases have been argued, Baker will focus his attention on a potential Senate bid.

“He’s very interested in running,” said one Democratic operative.

Clay Seymour, a Baker campaign spokesman, would not go that far, however.

“There’s a lot of interest out there for him to run for that seat,” Seymour said. “He’s going to look at it.”

Daschle was careful not to offer a full-fledged endorsement of Baker, who is considered by some Democratic operatives to be the party’s best hope of retaining Miller’s seat since he is one of the only names left on the party’s short list of top-tier contenders.

“We are not in a position at this point to make any public or private declaration of support,” said Daschle, noting that party leaders are willing to help other Democrats who are mulling a run. But the Minority Leader said he has not met with any other Georgia Democrat who is considering the race.

Aside from Baker, both Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor were initially considered top Democratic prospects to run for Miller’s seat. But Cox has already said she will not run, and efforts to coax Taylor into the race appear to have hit a dead end. Both officials are interested in running for governor in 2006 instead.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin (D) said last month that she is considering running for Senate after EMILY’S List commissioned and released a poll that showed her well-positioned against Isakson. However, few observers think that Franklin, who was first elected mayor in 2001, will enter the race.

Other potential Democratic candidates mentioned are state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond and former Secretary of State Lewis Massey. Thurmond, who is also black, would be unlikely to run if Baker does.

Meanwhile, Franklin’s role as a big city mayor is the anthesis of a profile that, Democrats argue, gives Baker broad statewide appeal and the ability to win a Senate seat.

To make their case, Democrats highlight the differences between Baker and other recent black candidates, including former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D), who lost an open-seat race in Texas last year, and former mayor of Charlotte Harvey Gantt (D), who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in 1990 and 1996.

Unlike both mayors, Baker has been elected statewide twice before, and was re-elected in 2002 after winning 118 of 159 counties. Georgia also has a higher black population than Texas, North Carolina and Illinois, where Braun was elected.

“I have great admiration for his record and his proven electability,” Daschle said.

Still, strategists know Baker will have his work cut out for him if he runs.

“It is possible for an African American to win statewide in Georgia, but it’s not easy,” said Dave Beattie, a Florida-based Democratic consultant who worked on Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes’ (D) unsuccessful re-election bid last year.

Additionally, the race could be impacted by fallout from the state’s ongoing efforts to choose a state flag, a racially divisive issue that was blamed in part for Barnes’ surprising defeat in 2002. A referendum vote has been scheduled for March 2004, with a subsequent vote in July if necessary.

In order to win, Baker would have to maximize turnout in the Atlanta media market and also pick up key voters in rural, mostly white areas — something party strategists believe is possible by selling Baker’s “law and order” profile.

“He’s an odd duck in that he’s pro-gun and pro-death penalty,” said D.C.-based Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who has worked for Georgia candidates in the past. “He’s made a name for himself just being tough on crime.”

Some Democrats also believe the party will be able to avoid a primary if Baker enters the race.

“I do think that if Thurbert Baker decides to get in there’s a very good chance that we’ll avoid a divisive primary on the Democratic side,” one Democratic operative said.

Another reason Democrats might strongly urge Baker to run is his candidacy could prompt Miller to come off the bench and formally endorse the attorney general, who served as Miller’s House floor leader when he was governor.

When Miller announced his decision to retire from the Senate, he made a point to say he would not play a role in the 2004 elections. But Miller considers Baker a close friend, and one Georgia Democrat noted that the Senator “might be drawn out of the wood work” if the attorney general enters the race.

Miller remains one of the state’s most popular elected officials, and his endorsement could be the edge Democrats need to win in a state that saw historic Republican gains in 2002. The maverick Senator campaigned for Democrats across the state last year and also cut ads for fellow Georgia Sen. Max Cleland (D), who was defeated by then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R).

While Isakson is experiencing great success on the fundraising circuit, Daschle said party leaders are not concerned that they have not yet settled on a nominee.

“It used to be you didn’t announce until the campaign year,” Daschle said. “We are only a few months into the off year. I don’t feel any compulsion to rush to judgment here. We will let the process take care of itself.”

Republicans, though, claim the lack of an announced candidate shows that Democrats have a “pretty weak” bench.

“There is no named frontrunner out there who ought to be succeeding Senator Miller on the Democratic side,” Chambliss said. “Historically, there has always been somebody in the Democratic Party who has stood out and would be the one that everybody knew would be the nominee. You don’t have that now.”

Chambliss also predicted that another Republican would likely seek the nomination, even though Isakson “is certainly doing everything he needs to do to make himself not just the frontrunner, but to ward off a number of other potential candidates that may be running against him.”

Isakson is pro-abortion rights, and it is widely believed he will face a challenge from the ideological right in the July 2004 primary. State House Minority Leader Lynn Westmoreland (R) is among those weighing a bid.

“He has raised a lot of money,” Chambliss said. “He is getting around the state. He is getting commitments from people in the right places and if anybody is going to run in that primary they are going to have to move, I would say, quickly.”

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