The call of the rebel

Carrying muddy campaign signs recycled from the South Carolina primary, a ragtag army of McCain volunteers is marching on the Bush stronghold in Georgia.

Published March 6, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Ask anyone working on the John McCain campaign in Georgia, and they'll tell you that the candidate with the power machine in the Peachtree State is George W. Bush. After all, he has a paid staff at his Atlanta campaign headquarters and new signs for his rallies.

By contrast, it's all volunteers who fill McCain's headquarters, and as for the campaign signs, they're recycled from last month's South Carolina primary. "You'll see that our signs have dirt marks, and that's because they came from South Carolina," says Harry Geisinger, vice chairman for McCain's Georgia campaign. "After Tuesday [when Georgia's GOP primary is held], we will gather them up and they will go to Tennessee or Florida or Mississippi."

"This is a poor man's campaign," said Geisinger. "We'd love for him [McCain] to be here, but money and time won't allow it."

Both the Bush and McCain campaigns are concentrating their time and money on New York and California, of course, where the highest number of Tuesday's delegates are up for grabs, 101 and 162 respectively. In Georgia, 54 delegates are at stake, but neither candidate has chosen to air television ads.

Instead, Bush and McCain volunteers are phone-banking, this time without the negative spillover from other states, they both say. It's been clean campaigning all the way here. After all, this is the land of "yes ma'am" and "no sir," where impoliteness gets you nowhere fast.

But McCain better hope that his volunteers start dripping sugar from their
lips if he hopes to pull a coup in Georgia. Bush's daddy carried this state in
1992, Bob Dole did it in 1996, and the polls say George W. will win it this time around.

Still, Southerners do love rebels, and McCain supporters are flocking to their man's cause. In the past month, the number of volunteers signing up for McCain in Georgia has jumped more than tenfold, from 210 to 2,300.

The former POW is also hoping for crossover votes from Georgia Democrats and Independents in the open primary to propel him toward March 14 when six states -- Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas -- all hold their primaries. "We have seen Bradley supporters who are calling saying they want to volunteer for McCain," says John Sours, McCain's Georgia chairman. "This will be what you see Tuesday."

Few people outside his campaign think McCain has a good chance to win here, however. The senator's attacks last week on evangelist Pat Robertson have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many conservative Georgians.

"McCain just doesn't have a natural kind of constituency among southern
Republicans," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University.
"Bush is an established country-club Republican and does well among
conservative Republicans, the non-religious and the religious Republicans.
That just plays good down in the South." Bush's unifying ability among these various segments of the party, says Black, will be what wins Georgia.

Still, if McCain has any chance to pull an upset in Georgia it will be because of the shifting nature of the electorate in and around Atlanta and also here in Savannah -- home of the bestseller "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" -- in coastal Chatham County.

In the past two decades, Atlanta has become progressively more cosmopolitan, with lots of Northern transplants and foreigners. African-Americans make up 27 percent of the 6.5 million population. Overall, 43 percent of the state's electorate resides in the Atlanta metro area.

In Savannah, McCain volunteers say they see signs of real hope for their candidate. The senator carried the more moderate Virginia counties outside of Washington, which is similar demographically to Chatham County, an area that often considers itself independent from the rest of Georgia.

There's Savannah, the saying goes, and then there's the rest of Georgia. In addition, Savannah is often seen as an accurate barometer for the rest of the country. That's why for years Procter & Gamble launched many of its products here. The company found the reception its products got in Savannah paralleled what they would get in the country at large.

The local GOP establishment has been non-commital in this year's race. "It's no secret that the only Republican congressman, Jack Kingston, has not endorsed a candidate," says Louie Nordbye, the Chatham County coordinator for McCain's veteran support. "We all think he leans toward McCain."

Savannah lies near Charleston and Hilton Head, S.C., both of which McCain carried in the South Carolina primary. Bush supporters counter that veterans and a strong military presence in those areas helped McCain, and that Savannah won't follow the pattern. "No way will McCain win here," says Elvin McNeill, Bush coordinator for Chatham County. "But the McCain people, I have to say, are gaining some steam."

Indeed. Take Nordbye, a Vietnam veteran. He leans liberal, more liberal
than even Bradley, he says. He is pro-choice and opposes the Republican
stance on gun control, but despite the fact that McCain calls himself a "proud Reagan conservative," Nordbye spends his days and nights rallying for
the senator along the Georgia coast.

"He speaks to the American people," says Nordbye. "He is serious about why he is running, and that's what this country needs." And because Savannah-area residents seldom conform with the rest of the state, Nordbye predicts McCain will win Chatham County, even if he doesn't carry Georgia. But come November, if McCain isn't the party's nominee, Nordbye said he could easily swing to Gore. So may many of the McCain supporters in Chatham County. And if Chatham County is the voice of America, that could bode well for Gore.

Bush supporters believe that their candidate not only will carry Georgia on Tuesday but the rest of the South on the 14th. It may be too early to count McCain completely out in Dixie, however. After all, virtually every other prediction in this topsy-turvy election year has proved unreliable. And, according to the McCain folks, come Wednesday, throughout this region an army of volunteers will be waiting on Federal Express to receive those recycled McCain signs from Georgia to carry on their insurgent war against the Bush machine.

By Suzi Parker

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.