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Five Democrats jockeying for nomination

Winner will challenge incumbent U.S. senator

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POSTED: July 29, 2008 5:00 a.m.
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Rand Knight

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ATLANTA — In a year when the battle for the White House has pumped up political passions, Georgia’s five-man race for the chance to challenge Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss has been a sleeper.
The crowded field in the Democratic contest lacks a real front-runner and a unifying message. And it’s generated little noticeable enthusiasm from rank-and-file Georgia Democrats.
Most political experts predict turnout for the July 15 primary will be low and none of the candidates will crack 50 percent of the vote, meaning a runoff will be needed on Aug. 5 between the top two finishers.
The race has pitted political experience — DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones and former state lawmaker Jim Martin — against three political newcomers who jokingly refer to themselves as the “three amigos.”
Dale Cardwell, Rand Knight and Josh Lanier are all making their first bid for elected office.
On many key issues — such as education, healthcare and energy — the candidates generally agree with each other and hew to well-established Democratic party positions.
The sharpest difference has come over campaign financing.
Cardwell and Lanier have shunned contributions from political action committees. The decision has allowed them to claim the ethical high ground but at a cost: They have almost no money to get their message out.
Martin, running with the support of Democratic party PACs, leads the race for cash. He has $329,954 on hand, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. Jones reported $150,366 in the bank, Knight has $54,034, and Cardwell has $20,223. Lanier hasn’t raised more than $5,000 so he doesn’t have to file a report.

The candidates are:

— Cardwell, a former investigative reporter with WSB-TV in Atlanta, describes himself as a longtime “truth teller” who is seeking public office after spending a career exposing government corruption. Cardwell, 45, raised eyebrows when he camped out for a week atop a 300-foot-high scaffold in frigid January temperatures to draw attention to his Senate bid.

— Jones, 46, is wrapping up his second term as chief executive officer of Georgia’s second largest county, where he oversees a $2.6 billion annual budget. He’s won praise for preserving greenspace, but critics say his personal foibles over the years have overshadowed his accomplishments. He was ordered to take an anger management class in 1987 after allegedly waving a gun at a woman. In 2004, a DeKalb County commissioner claimed Jones pushed her after a budget dispute. The same year, a woman accused Jones of rape but did not pursue the case and no charges were filed. Jones has called the allegation “nonsense” and said the incident amounted to consensual sex. He also notes that he’s never been charged with a crime. He calls himself a conservative Democrat, but his votes for President Bush in 2000 and 2004 might not sit well with some primary voters.

— Knight, 36, is a former ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and a private sector environmental scientist. He currently works in national security technology. Despite being a political newcomer, he’s won coveted labor endorsements from the Georgia Association of Educators and the Georgia chapter of the AFL-CIO.

— Lanier worked for three decades at a series of jobs in Washington. The 55-year-old was a congressional aide and later worked for a number of trade and nonprofit associations. A lobbyist and fundraiser who once worked bundling campaign contributions, Lanier has used his campaign to rail against the corrupting influence of money on the political system.

— Martin, a Georgia Democratic Party stalwart, entered the race late and only after being urged to do so by national party leaders. He drew the ire of his opponents when he said that he’s running because none of the other Democrats could defeat Chambliss. A 62-year-old lawyer, Martin was a state lawmaker for almost two decades and a former commissioner of the state Department of Human Resources. He’s pledged to be a fighter for the middle class, but critics point to his failed 2006 bid for lieutenant governor as evidence that he can’t win statewide.

One thing seems certain: whoever wins the Democratic party nomination will face an uphill battle against Chambliss in Georgia, which has been reliably Republican in recent years.
There is speculation that Barack Obama’s history-making quest could drive a large number of Georgia’s black voters — most of them Democrats — to the polls.
Still, Chambliss has the power of incumbency and is sitting on $4 million in his campaign war chest, even after he spent $1 million on his first media buy. He’s ready to run a blitz of television advertisements as soon as the Democrats select his opponent, aides said.
 

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