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House candidates slug it out in special election

Graves, Hawkins get rough in bid for Deal’s former 9th District seat

POSTED: May 6, 2010 11:48 p.m.

From each end of the 9th U.S. House District, Republicans Lee Hawkins and Tom Graves have taken potshots at each other for nearly two months.

But as Tuesday’s special election draws nearer, the hits are getting harder and as direct as those from a sniper’s rifle.

Hawkins of Gainesville and Graves of Ranger are the two fundraising frontrunners in the campaign to fill the seat left vacant by former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal. Deal resigned in March and is seeking the Republican nomination for governor in the July 20 primary.

Both Hawkins and Graves gave up their seats in the General Assembly to participate in the special election to complete Deal’s term.

And the nearer Tuesday gets, more people are paying attention, and the campaigns are intensifying. The friction seems hottest between Hawkins and Graves, likely a signal of the two candidates’ fears, according to seasoned political consultant Joel McElhannon.

McElhannon, based in Atlanta, has worked on more than 100 campaigns, including Republican Casey Cagle’s successful 2006 campaign for lieutenant governor.

“You can always tell who a candidate or a campaign thinks is their biggest threat by who they attack,” McElhannon said. “If they’re not talking about the other candidates it’s because they don’t see them as being viable.”

Also in the race are Republicans Chris Cates, Bert Loftman, Bill Stephens and Steve Tarvin, and independent Eugene Moon. Democrat Mike Freeman, who earlier withdrew from the race, remains on the ballot.

But when it comes to attacks, Graves and Hawkins have mostly had eyes for each other as they perceive themselves as the frontrunners.

In its purest form, such back-and-forth is a candidate’s way of making a campaign stand out from an opponent’s by pointing out differences, McElhannon said.

And other candidates must, at least, set the record straight when opponents make claims about them, McElhannon said.

But it isn’t always pure. Attacks can be untruthful and intensely personal.

“A lot of campaigns will find the need to sort of throw a counterpunch in order to neutralize that one attack,” said McElhannon. “... Sometimes if the attack has merit — I mean, if it’s a truthful attack — then the only resort you have is a counterpunch. It’s not so much setting the record straight as much as it’s just hitting the other guy harder, and that’s just the nature of campaigns.”

This week, the battle has centered on Graves’ former Dawson County campaign chairwoman who sent a letter to local newspapers claiming Graves violated federal rules for contributions.

The woman, Linda Umberger, now supports Hawkins campaign. Graves’ campaign said there was no evidence to support Umberger’s charge.

“(Hawkins’) campaign is crumbling and he is sending out accusations that are baseless and false,” Graves’ campaign spokesman Tim Baker said.

The original e-mail then touched off a series of responses from supporters of both candidates.

Hawkins said the same thing last week about an advertisement funded by Club for Growth, a political action committee that supports Graves. The ad claimed Hawkins would not fight President Barack Obama’s agenda in Washington.

The Hawkins campaign responded with another advertisement implying Graves would be a puppet for special-interest groups.

“Lee has to respond,” said Mark Rountree, a consultant for Hawkins’ campaign. “So we put up a response ad showing what was really going ... we’re responding to being attacked.”

Tuesday’s election is the first time Graves has faced a serious candidate like Hawkins with experience and solid funding, said Tom Crawford, editor for the Georgia Report who has spent more than a decade reporting on the Georgia General Assembly.

“That may account in part for the ... nasty tone of the current election race,” Crawford said.

McElhannon said he knows both Graves and Hawkins, and calls them “good guys.”

“But they’re also in a hard-fought contest here, and the in the intensity of the moment, sometimes you do things that, upon reflection, perhaps wasn’t what you really were intending to do,” McElhannon said.

Graves, who entered the race two months before Hawkins, immediately took an aggressive approach to lock up the conservative tea party vote, Crawford said.

And when Hawkins entered the race in July with a similar “hard-edged” approach in an election year in which both candidates and voters are on edge, Crawford said a slugging match was destined to happen.

“It’s that kind of campaign where both sides are swinging at each other as hard as they can, and you’ve just got to be ready to knock the daylights out of the other guy,” said Crawford. “Because if you don’t, he’s going to do it to you.”



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