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Embattled Burns’ Plea: Vote for Max

LOUISVILLE, Ga. — Hours after giving the Sunday morning sermon at a Southern Baptist church in nearby Wrens, Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.) takes to a pulpit of a different sort to deliver his message to the predominantly black audience gathered at Louis Long’s Seafood restaurant.

While it might seem out of the ordinary for a white Republican in the South to be holding a black outreach meeting on the day before the state’s voter registration deadline passes, this encounter and others like it are paramount to the embattled freshman lawmaker’s survival.

Burns has been considered the most vulnerable incumbent in the House ever since he was sworn into office last year, and his race against Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow (D) tops the list of competitive contests this fall.

His vulnerability, as he is quick to point out, is a product of the Democratic-leaning 12th district he represents and not a reflection of the job he has done.

Speaking to the audience in Louisville (pronounced LOOIS-ville, not like the baseball bat) last Sunday, Burns talks about terrorism, his visit to the Middle East, Medicare and the cost of prescription drugs.

But most importantly, he talks about values.

He goes to great lengths to remind those gathered that he shares their beliefs on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, even though he may not share their political party preference.

He implores the crowd to disregard party labels — “because parties put us in boxes,” he says — and asks them to get informed about the candidates in the race.

“I appreciate the fact that many of you as African Americans may not feel comfortable voting for a Republican versus a Democrat,” Burns tells the audience, which includes 11 pastors. “I want you to know I want you to vote for Max. I want you to understand there are individuals here, not parties. And I want to ask you as an individual for your vote. When you feel comfortable with a candidate you support them, regardless of party.”

Burns receives a warm reception from the crowd, a reaction that his campaign says has been mirrored throughout the long and narrow district, which stretches from Athens to Augusta and then south to Savannah.

Burns, a farmer and former college professor, won the seat that was drawn by the state Legislature in 2002 to elect a Democrat by beating an opponent who ultimately turned out to be unelectable.

At the Sunday gathering Emma Gresham, the 79-year-old mayor of neighboring Keysville, stands and expresses her joy at finally getting to meet the man she has heard much about.

“It’s not the party, it’s the individual,” Gresham says, echoing Burns’ message. “It’s important to know who you’re voting for.”

Resisting Labels

The ability to remove party labels from the race is perhaps Burns’ biggest obstacle, but one that he is proving is not insurmountable.

“I realize that what they would like is a generic race. A generic D against a generic R and they win 90 percent of the D vote and they win. I’ve got that figured out,” Burns explains. “But that’s what can’t happen. It’s got to be candidate Burns versus candidate Barrow.”

For all of Burns’ efforts to frame the race as one about person over party, Barrow is making equal efforts to remind voters that parties do matter given what’s at stake in this election.

On Friday evening Barrow attends the Georgia NAACP’s candidate forum in Columbus, where he introduces himself as a life-sustaining member of the Athens NAACP.

“I’m a Democrat born, I’m a Democrat bred and when I die I’ll be a Democrat dead,” he says.

Barrow calls the 12th district race the most important election in the country next to re-electing Democratic incumbents, because it is the one considered most likely to change hands.

The implications of this race, Barrow tells the audience, reach even further than this year’s election. When the topic of extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 comes up, Barrow says this election could likely decide who will be voting when the House considers the issue during the 110th Congress.

“The time when an incumbent, especially a mismatch, is the most vulnerable is at the time of his or her first re-election,” he says. “If we do not replace a 95 percent Tom DeLay Republican with a good Democrat in this election, in his first re-election, then we will not be able to replace him at all. Because he’s putting an anchor down in that district as best he can.”

Barrow invokes the name of the conservative Majority Leader to remind voters which national party Burns belongs to, but Barrow says he is not attempting to nationalize the race.

“I don’t think my party’s right 95 percent of the time, but I know the crowd that’s up there in charge right now ain’t right 95 percent of the time,” he says.

He also believes that unless there is a landslide victory for either President Bush or Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the race in the 12th district will not be impacted heavily by the outcome of the presidential race. The district voted overwhelmingly for then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000, and in 2002, as it was electing Burns, it went heavily for then-Sen. Max Cleland and then-Gov. Roy Barnes, even as both Democrats lost their re-election bids.

Barrow describes the 12th district race as “the leading edge for change in the House” and his message to disaffected audiences is that they can make a positive difference by helping to elect him.

Winning the Ground Game

As Barrow is speaking to the NAACP on Friday night, Burns is across the state in Effingham County doing the coin toss at a homecoming football game that pits two high schools in the district against each other.

In a district that includes both the University of Georgia and Georgia Southern University, football is an important way for Burns to connect with voters. Ever the politician, Burns had a special game day shirt made with both schools’ logos when the two teams played each other earlier this season. (Burns actually got his undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech, something he admits he still gets grief for in this part of the state.)

“My goal is to have two national champions in the 12th district,” Burns says proudly as he walks the tailgate circuit at the Georgia/Louisiana State football game in Athens on Saturday.

Burns’ campaign has a tailgate set up (no alcohol is served though, instructions of the candidate) and amid the sea of red and black outfits there are plenty of eager takers for the “Bulldogs for Bush” and “Max Burns Go Dawgs” stickers his staff is passing out.

As he bounds around the tailgate festivities, looking for the best food spreads and his district regulars among the mostly white crowd of 90,000 fans, it is clear that Burns prizes and excels at the retail aspects of politics.

While he estimates that he’s only come in contact with about 150 or so voters who live in the district today, he feels confident that his presence at the game will be spread to a larger audience.

“It’s a little bit like Miss Jane’s in Warrenton,” Burns explains, citing one of the local spots where he likes to stop when he’s traveling through the rural areas of the district. “Everybody in that town knows you were there by noon. That’s the thing.”

The strategy appears to be paying off for Burns. The Sunday edition of the Athens Banner-Herald carries a front page story detailing how the Congressional race is playing in the rural areas of the district. It cites several voters who say they have had personal encounters with Burns.

Arriving at E.F. Culpepper’s tailgate Saturday, his last stop of the afternoon, Burns finally gets some of the “famous ribs” he’s been talking about all day and gives some of the Athens locals an update on the race. He tells them that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is spending $750,000 on an ad buy attacking him — further bolstering his belief that the campaign is where he wants it to be.

“We feel good,” Burns says.

Of course, Burns has been hitting Barrow equally hard on television — painting him as a liberal trial lawyer with an anti-business record. The National Republican Congressional Committee went up this week with an ad attacking Barrow for allegedly raising taxes.

Barrow also has suffered recently from charges that he has flip-flopped on his support for a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

No polling has been made public in the race so far, but both men acknowledge the contest will be close. Both say they are optimistic.

“We’re doing everything that you need to do in order to win,” Barrow says. “That’s why I’m very optimistic that we’re going to win this race. We have the right message. Folks like the message of our campaign. They feel the need for a change in Washington.”

Making Inroads

While Barrow’s message is no doubt playing to many sympathetic Democrats in the district, Burns is also aggressively working to siphon off support from the party’s traditional base in a district that has a 42 percent black population.

Oveta Thorton, who is from Athens and is helping Burns with his African-American outreach effort, believes that many black voters will support Burns even though they may not choose to publicize it with a yard sign or bumper sticker.

Thorton, an enthusiastic supporter of Rep. Denise Majette (D) in the state’s Senate race, admits that she’s never been this excited about a Republican candidate. She stressed that she doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Burns on all issues, but says that his willingness to acknowledge those differences shows integrity.

“We do have some philosophical differences but I think they are differences that we can work through,” Thorton says after the meeting in Louisville on Sunday. “That’s why I am supporting him. I don’t feel that strongly about his opponent.”

Judy Stocker, who works for the mayor’s office in Keysville, is less sure about who to support in the race. While she disagrees with Burns on many issues, she’s met Barrow and says she doesn’t care for him either.

“He rarely votes the way I ask him,” Stocker says, referring to Burns, “but he always sends me a letter of explanation.”

Prince Jackson, the president of the NAACP branch in Savannah, notes the good constituent service he’s gotten from Burns and agrees that the Republican will get significant support from the black community. For that reason he thinks the freshman lawmaker will be tough to beat.

“Congressman Burns is the kind of Republican candidate that an African American can vote for,” Jackson says, pointing to the fact that Burns has not done anything “outlandish” to turn off the black community.

“It used to be a time when you could just get in and say, ‘Vote for me because I’m a Democrat.’” Jackson says. “You can’t do that no more.”

Barrow seems acutely aware of Burns’ outreach to black voters — perhaps a reason he flies across the state to attend the NAACP event in Columbus. After the meeting, he even wonders aloud about whether he could join the Congressional Black Caucus if he’s elected.

Meanwhile, conservative black commentator Armstrong Williams joins Burns for a call-in show on a gospel radio station in Athens before the game Saturday. The joint appearance is further proof that Burns’ affable style and relentless outreach could trump the advantage Democrats are expecting with black voters because of their traditional allegiances.

Barbara Campbell, a minister from Keysville whose son is currently serving in Iraq, attends the meeting with Burns on Sunday and says she is impressed with his ability to connect with voters. Campbell says she’s heard Barrow speak too, but that she’s likely to vote for Burns.

“His down-homeness, that’s what really got me,” Campbell says. “Most of the politicians are kind of uppity like, but being down home and then just coming into a little community, a little town like Louisville. That helps a great deal. He’s really like reaching out to the people.”

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