WASHINGTON — Georgia voters are bracing for a likely runoff between Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin, a turn of events that would test the fortitude of a weary electorate that's already weathered one of the longest election cycles in recent history.
With 96 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday, Chambliss led Martin, a former state legislator, 49.9 percent to 46.7 percent, just short of the state's 50 percent-plus-one-vote threshold for victory. Libertarian Allen Buckley pulled roughly 3 percent. That small margin, coupled with thousands of as-yet-uncounted absentee, military, provisional ballots and votes from several crucial precincts in the metro Atlanta area, could be decisive.
"If we had 4,000 more votes right now this would be over," Chambliss said Wednesday.
He and Martin and the leaders of their respective parties are preparing for a runoff Dec. 2 that would draw national party luminaries and huge sums of money to the Peach State. After spending an emotionally charged evening with supporters in Atlanta, both candidates began Wednesday bright and early, ready to start the overtime period of their campaigns.
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Martin quickly sought to connect himself with President-elect Barack Obama's victory as the first African-American elected to that office while promising to be an "independent voice for Georgia."
"We're going to win on Dec. 2, because this race is going to be about helping President-elect Barack Obama get our economy back on track and making the economy work for the middle class again," Martin said. "America has elected Barack Obama president, and I say now is the time for all of us to help him succeed."
That connection may prove to be a shrewd move and is a refrain that would be driven home during a runoff, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
"This race will see an enormous amount of firepower in terms of money, power and attention," Duffy said. "You may see Obama in Georgia. Democrats will tell you that Obama will be able to motivate African-Americans to come back out and vote, but I'm not sure it's the silver bullet they think it is."
Political experts stress that the Georgia runoff would be a very different race.
"The problem is that this is an X factor," said Norman Ornstein, a veteran congressional analyst and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy-research center. "Without Obama at the top of the ticket you won't see the African-American vote turning out, and the tendencies of the white vote to turn out would give Chambliss an advantage. The question is whether the new president wants to use money, effort and prestige to get involved. There's a possibility (Obama) will do it, but he'll think long and hard about it."
There's a precedent for such runoff attempts in Georgia. In 1992, President-elect Bill Clinton campaigned for Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler in his ultimately unsuccessful runoff against Paul Coverdell.
Officials with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to discuss which party headliners might appear in Georgia should the race proceed to a runoff. However, both groups emphasized the pivotal role the seat could play in helping to determine whether Democrats win a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate.
Democrats increased their majority to 56 seats during Tuesday elections, and leaders of both parties are awaiting the outcome of close races in three other states: Minnesota, Oregon and Alaska.
Chambliss remained confident that Republican colleagues would rally to his side.
"I am sure that we will bring surrogates in the assist with the campaign. There's a good chance that John (McCain) or Governor Palin . . . might come," Chambliss said. "The closer we get to that 60-vote margin, the more imperiled conservative values are. More and more you'll hear about my race."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who emerged from the toughest re-election campaign of his career as the titular head of a party that lost the White House and crucial Senate and House seats, is keenly aware of the Georgia race.
"If there is another election, all of us will be deeply involved in it," he said.
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