Charlie Harper: Perdue feeling spotlight heat

April 8, 2014 

If it seems like the campaign for U.S. Senate has been going on forever, that's because it has. It's been almost 15 months since Senator Saxby Chambliss announced he would not run for re-election. That's roughly 450 24 hour news cycles. Forgive a lot of the insiders if they're already over it, or have their opinions about where the race is heading locked in. The campaign, for many, is old news.

In reality, the campaign has just begun. Voters will likely narrow down the field of seven to two in only six more weeks. For the campaigns themselves, it is now "go time."

Two of the three candidates who are in the $2 million raised club are already on TV. Jack Kingston has made his old Buick station wagon a star, using it to introduce him to voters across the state who may have heard of him, but no little about the person or record of the ten term Congressman from Savannah. Kingston is using his money to buy himself name ID, and the polls which have shown a virtual five-way tie for a year have nudged a bit in his direction.

"Outsider" David Perdue is also spending heavily on TV. Despite that most Georgia voters wouldn't normally be able to name a former CEO of Dollar General he began the campaign with exceptionally high name ID. Credit his cousin, a former gvernor with the same name, for providing a bit of an assist there.

Perdue's commercials assert that he is the adult in the race by featuring the other major candidates as crying babies. Nothing says "I'm the adult here" like name calling. Three recent publicly released polls seem to indicate the commercial is resonating, as he is now being referred to as the front runner.

Being a front runner is a mixed blessing. Just ask "Governor" John Oxendine. He carried a strong lead in the polls throughout the 2010 governor's race. He led until the campaigns actually started to do the real campaign part. He went from first to fourth in a roughly two-month span, missing the runoff.

Like Oxendine, Perdue is finding that one can't merely operate on offense once the front runner. With front runner status comes extra scrutiny. All those candidates he sees as crying babies see him in one of the two open slots they need to be in on the morning of May 21st. Any one Republican holding back negative information will be working overtime to make sure it is out there over the next couple of weeks.

We've already seen a preview. Last week a video surfaced of Perdue speaking to a Macon GOP meeting with him dismissively saying "I mean there's a high school graduate in this race, OK? I'm sorry but these issues are so much broader … so complex. There's only one candidate in this race that's ever lived outside the United States."

The issue not only drew quick backlash from Karen Handel, the high school graduate who left an abusive home at age 17 and completed some college before a she had to choose a career opportunity over finishing her degree, but from Handel's biggest name endorser Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor and VP nominee made an Atlanta area appearance denouncing the statement as a "sad day" for Republicans. Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, also a former businessman without a college degree (who presumably has been handling these broad and complex issues during his five terms) called Perdue's comments "stupid."

The gaffe by Perdue also created for his opponents an opportunity to position him not as the outsider he is claiming to be, but an outsider who is outside the lifestyle of the average Georgian. He doesn't just live in the gated community of Sea Island, but he lives in the Ocean Forest development. That's a gated community INSIDE the gated community of Sea Island.

He does like to quail hunt, but not necessarily in South Georgia. Word of an online review Perdue left for a quail hunting resort in Argentina that praised the wine and the after-hunt massages was published last week by the AJC's Jim Galloway. There's an assumption that most Georgians who hunt quail don't associate wine or massages with their hunt, nor pay thousands per night for their lodging. The battle is clearly on to position Perdue as an elitist.

This, frankly, brings us to one of the most important points of a contested primary. It is a system that, when it works, is supposed to vet the candidates in order to produce the best nominee for the party.

The other four primary candidates have lengthy records in public life. Perdue's background is still largely unknown to the general public. It has not had the public scrutiny that it will clearly face over the next six weeks, and possibly 9 more before he would be the nominee.

Democrats, presumably ready to nominate Michelle Nunn, are ready and building a war chest and helping position her for a tough November fight. Republicans have been focused on the potential "Todd Akin" problem they may have by choosing the wrong nominee. And that is a very valid concern. These concerns have primarily been directed at those who have made public gaffes about science and rape. These concerns also need to be allayed before nominating a candidate whose only public record thus far is what he wants us to know about him.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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