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Georgia Senate race may be headed to a runoff

With votes still being counted Wednesday morning, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., narrowly leads Democratic challenger Jim Martin in a three-way race that garnered national attention for its potentially pivotal role in helping determine whether Democrats won filibuster-proof control of the Senate.

With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Chambliss led Democrat Jim Martin 49.9 percent to 46.7 percent.

Both candidates worried that Libertarian Allen Buckley might force the race into a Dec. 2 runoff if no candidate won more than 50 percent when all the votes are counted.

At a Republican victory party Tuesday night at the Intercontinental Hotel in Atlanta, Chambliss predicted the race would be “very, very close.”

“We feel confident that we’ve got a great opportunity to win without a runoff, but it’s going to be a long night,” Chambliss said. “It will not be a runaway.”

But as the night wore on, Buckley pulled roughly 3 percent and Chambliss remained ahead, making the possibility of a runoff unlikely.

In many areas of the state, election officials projected 90 percent turnout -- a boost that was due in no small part to Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign’s massive voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Many voters waited in line for hours to cast ballots during the early voting period, and thousands more braved similar wait times on Tuesday.

But in the end, the Obama boost didn’t appear to be enough to topple Chambliss, a former congressman from Moultrie, and Republican leaders breathed a sigh of relief.

“Nobody wanted this to go to a runoff. When that race was called the first call I got was from my wife saying now you don’t have to go (to Georgia). There’s a lot of spouses that are happy that it wasn’t a runoff,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign, R-Nev., told reporters.

Earlier in the year, Chambliss seemed assured of an easy victory over Martin, an Atlanta attorney who was the senator’s Sigma Chi fraternity brother at the University of Georgia 40 years ago.

Martin came in second in the Democratic primary against DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones, but pulled out a victory during the August runoff. He emerged from the bruising primary campaign to face a Republican opponent capable of far outspending him.

Then the economy took a sharp downturn. Within a matter of just a few weeks, Chambliss found himself in the midst of a political scrap-fest against Martin.

Conservative radio stations and Chambliss’ congressional office buzzed with calls from Georgians who were livid at the senator’s vote for the Bush administration's $700 billion bailout package for the nation’s foundering financial sector. Martin echoed that criticism and seized on the opportunity to further link Chambliss to the Bush administration by pointing to the senator’s support of the Iraq war.

Chambliss countered by criticizing his opponent’s performance during his 18-year career in the state legislature and as head of the Department of Human Resources. During Martin’s stint as department head, two children died after the state returned them to abusive homes; Martin was forced to step down.

As the candidates sparred, the leaders of their respective parties took notice.

Buoyed by Obama’s bounce in the polls, Democratic leaders moved aggressively to try to net a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Georgia, they felt, could prove critical in achieving that goal.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee poured more than $2 million into ads on behalf of Martin. In recent weeks, DSCC chairman Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., began to talk about the Georgia Senate position as the possible 60th seat necessary in Democrats' quest for a filibuster-proof majority.

Democrats also relished the idea of a grudge match after Chambliss’ victory over triple-amputee Vietnam veteran and former Sen. Max Cleland. Political analysts often point to Chambliss’ commercial questioning Cleland’s patriotism as one of the harshest in recent campaign history.

The Republican Party remained confident that it could hold the “red” line, and the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee fired back in its ads against Martin. Georgia went for President Bush in the 2004 election, and the party sees the elections of Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, Chambliss and Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson as evidence of its firm hold on Georgia.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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