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A star is born - maybe

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POSTED: June 26, 2007 5:07 a.m.
Under the old rules, investigative newsman Dale Cardwell would be treated as a fringe candidate for the U.S. Senate — a TV reporter probably in the throes of a midlife crisis and determined to jump off a cliff.
With no previous political experience, little money and a Mugwump platform, Democrat Cardwell’s announced candidacy might be worth three paragraphs. The old rules are out though; the new rules are in.
Cardwell is a celebrity, albeit a local one, and therefore deserves serious attention. Think Paris Hilton, not Joe Frank Harris.
Under the new rules (beta version), TV fame trumps weighty resumes. Free media compensates for meager advertising budgets.
Last week’s news coverage of Cardwell’s campaign rollout surpassed those of many past established political figures. I doubt Sam Nunn would have received as much attention if he had decided to make a comeback.
Atlanta TV stations carried the Dale Cardwell story for three days straight. Ubiquitous lobbyist-commentator Matt Towery appeared in high definition to tell us what it all means. Nationally known Emory University political expert Merle Black went on camera to question Cardwell’s strategy of eschewing campaign cash from PACs and Washington lobbyists.
The AJC political blog, Political Insider, almost OD’d on the Cardwell story. The AJC gave Cardwell’s announcement a three-column headline. Cardwell obviously did not burn any bridges as he left the employment of Cox Enterprises (WSB-TV and the AJC) to enter politics. An Atlanta lawyer who had contracted hard-to-cure tuberculosis finally crowded Cardwell off the news.
To be sure, Cardwell has been an award-winning investigative reporter for the state’s largest TV station. He is popular among his media peers. Cardwell also employed smart advisers who knew that a Saturday leak to the media might give him extraordinary exposure during a dull news weekend.
Whatever Cardwell may be lacking in political stature, he is not dumb, and he will not be a passive candidate.
New rules and old rules aside, a couple of central questions remain: Can Cardwell win the Democratic Senate nomination? If he can, would he have a prayer of beating Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss?
A month ago, the answers would have been “no” and “are you kidding?”
Now, I am not so certain. The Democratic primary is likely to be dominated, once again, by the African-American vote, which may give DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones a head start, if he runs for the nomination. But Cardwell obviously hopes to attract white conservatives back to the Democratic primary with his pledges to fight amnesty for illegal aliens, support the U.S. presence in Iraq and abolish the IRS.
More important, Chambliss suddenly appears vulnerable. He was booed at the recent Georgia Republican convention because of his involvement in immigration legislation. The influential U.S. Immigration Reform Political Action Committee threatened to target Chambliss for defeat if he voted in favor of the Senate “amnesty” bill. “All we get from Saxby is lawyer talk,” a prominent Republican told me after listening to Chambliss speak on the immigration bill.
Thursday night, Sen. Chambliss along with Sen. Johnny Isakson joined most other Republican senators in opposing an end to debate on the immigration measure, effectively killing the bill for the foreseeable future.  
Chambliss’ rubber-stamp approval of President Bush's policies also is beginning to raise eyebrows. The president’s popularity is fading, especially among some Georgia conservatives who believe Bush has betrayed them on several fronts, including immigration. So Saxby’s “I Love W.” button may be turning into a bad-luck badge.
A couple of months ago, we wrote, “Voters need a reason to fire a senator.” Now they may have one, though the Senate vote may have taken the heat out of the immigration issue for the time being.
Before we turn the senator’s seat over to Cardwell, however, keep this in mind: Chambliss, the former Senate agriculture chairman, is likely to have millions in campaign funds at his disposal. While Cardwell will undoubtedly receive ample free-media coverage, Chambliss can saturate the state’s TV markets with paid advertising. The state’s business community, especially the agribusiness sector, is likely to go all-out to protect the senator.
Of course, Cardwell could still strike just the right populist chord to win the upset of the century. A more likely scenario: The TV guy will receive a Democratic Party certificate of gratitude for daring to say, “Emperor Chambliss wears no clothes,” thus emboldening more substantive opposition to the senior senator.
In any event, Cardwell’s against-all-odds candidacy puts a fresh twist on Georgia politics that may make the 2008 state election more interesting after all.

Contact Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net
 

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