The Eyes Of The Nation

When voters in Georgia’s 10th Congressional District go to the polls June 19 to elect a replacement for the late Charlie Norwood, the eyes of the nation – or at least those people who read and write about politics – will be watching the outcome very closely.

It appears, as this column is being written, that it will be the first congressional election held anywhere in the country since the November general election.

That was when voters across the country (except in Georgia) ousted more than 30 Republican incumbents and handed control of the U.S. House and Senate to Democrats. There’s no question that the major reason voters turned on the ruling party was disapproval of President George W. Bush and the way he was handling the war in Iraq.

Those approval numbers haven’t improved since Nov. 7. Nationally, Bush’s job approval ratings have remained far south of the 40 percent level. In polls conducted since the first of the year, Americans have indicated they oppose continuation of the Iraqi hostilities by roughly a two-to-one margin.

If there is any state and any district in which you would assume President Bush and the Republican Party have maintained their popularity, it is Georgia and the 10th Congressional District.

Georgians gave 55 percent of their votes to Bush in the 2000 presidential election and 58 percent in 2004. In the 2006 off-year elections, Georgia was one of few states where Bush could still make personal appearances without harming the chances of the candidate he was there to support.

In the seven congressional elections he won between 1994 and 2006, the affable Norwood only once drew less than 59 percent of the vote. Even in the last two elections, when medical problems prevented him from actively campaigning against Democratic opposition, Norwood still carried 74.3 percent of the vote in 2004 and 67.4 percent in 2006.

You don’t get more solidly Republican than that.

The 10th District still leans heavily GOP, so the leading Republican candidate in the upcoming special election – whether it’s state Sen. Jim Whitehead or former Athens mayor Doc Eldridge – will be the presumptive favorite.

It would be no surprise to see Bush fly to the state, as he has done often in the past, to campaign on behalf of the Republican candidate if there is a runoff with a Democratic opponent July 17.

But there are poll numbers suggesting that even in Georgia, as patriotic a state as you will find, people may be getting a little weary of Bush and the fighting in Iraq. It wasn’t widely noted by the mainstream media, but statewide polls conducted in January and at the end of February by Strategic Vision turned up some interesting numbers on the following questions:

Do you approve or disapprove of President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq? In January, only 38 percent of Georgians approved; in February, that number dropped to 36 percent.

Do you approve or disapprove of President Bush’s plan to send additional United States troops to Iraq? Only 33 percent of respondents in the January poll approved (the question was not asked in the February poll).

Bush’s job approval numbers in those two polls weren’t much to brag about either: 42 percent in January and 40 percent in February.

Keep in mind that these numbers, which represent a remarkable turnaround from the fervent support that Georgians once displayed for Bush and the Iraqi war, were compiled by a Republican polling firm.

The 10th District election thus becomes a crucial barometer of how high support remains for Bush in areas that have always backed him strongly. That’s why national pundits will be analyzing what Georgia’s voters do June 19, especially if a Democratic candidate enters the race and tries to make the war a major issue.

If a Republican candidate rolls to victory with more than 60 percent of the vote, we’ll know that it’s business as usual in this reliably red state. If, on the other hand, a Democrat draws 40 or 45 percent of the vote in such a heavily Republican district, it’ll be a good indication that the last of President Bush’s support is draining away.

If he loses Georgia, he’s lost the country.

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