Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss won't be seeking a third term in the U.S. Senate this year, and his decision to bow out has eight other Republicans, including three congressmen, scrambling for his seat.
Democrats, meanwhile, have their hopes pinned on the daughter of a well-known and widely admired former senator. It's turned a Senate race Republicans hoped would be a cakewalk into something far less predictable.
Georgia has gone from a bastion of conservative Democrats to a place where, for the first time since Reconstruction, all statewide offices are now held by Republicans. Still, Merle Black, who teaches Southern politics at Emory University, says going into this Senate race, neither Democrats nor Republicans in Georgia have a majority.
"The issue for the Republicans is whether they can come out united behind a candidate who can put together the different factions of the Republican Party and also appeal to independents," Black says. "And right now, that's a big open question."
The Most Conservative Person In The Room
In a high school auditorium deep in southern Georgia last weekend, state GOP chairman John Padgett kicked off the first debate among the Republicans vying for Chambliss' Senate seat. A nearly all-white crowd of several hundred showed up for the debate, as did seven of the eight GOP contenders. Moderator Martha Zoller, a conservative radio talk show host, said this slew of Republican rivals have their work cut out for them.
"Whoever comes out of this primary is going to be bruised, bloodied and broke," Zoller said.
The debate largely boiled down to those candidates trying to out-conservative one another.
"I am a proven conservative, with a track record of actually getting the job done," said Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state.
Not to be outdone was 11-term Rep. Jack Kingston.
"I'm a consistent conservative with an A-plus NRA rating," Kingston said.
Rep. Paul Broun one-upped the others.
"I'm the only true conservative with a proven consistent record of that conservatism," Broun said.
Rep. Phil Gingrey, the other member of Congress who's running, skipped the debate for a fundraiser. He's made repealing the Affordable Care Act his campaign's centerpiece; so has Broun.
And Kingston, who's considered more moderate than the other two congressmen, called Obamacare "an absolute assault on the American Dream."
"That's why I have voted 40 times to repeal it," Kingston said.
That's not good enough, though, for Broun, who chides his House colleague in a recent Web ad.
Kingston has also caught some grief for suggesting last month that low-income children do something in exchange for free school lunches, such as paying a dime or a nickel, or "maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria."
That prompted the NBC TV affiliate in Savannah to highlight some of Kingston's own free lunches. They reported that Kingston and his staff expensed $4,200 in meals for business purposes to his congressional office.
Kingston says such criticism just indicates how well he's doing.
"I know dogs don't bark at parked cars," Kingston said.
The Democratic Challenger
Two days later in Atlanta, 46-year-old Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn and the Democrats' likely nominee, greeted a largely black crowd at a Martin Luther King Day march.
Nunn cannot win without a major turnout by black Democratic voters, but she must also woo independents. In an interview, Nunn pointedly notes she's headed President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light volunteer service institute.
"Certainly I have a great deal and affection and admiration for President Bush, for his family, and I think I've demonstrated the capacity to roll up my sleeves [and] work together with people across the aisle," Nunn said.
Still, in the same interview, Nunn sides with President Obama's Affordable Care Act, saying it should move forward. Emory's Merle Black says that's reassuring to Democrats, but it could turn off some crucial independents.
"So if Michelle Nunn does take this position of defending the health care issue, you're going to see that in Republican ads all over the state," he says.
Meanwhile, Nunn is raising money and traveling the state while Republicans gird for six more debates.
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