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Crawford: Chambliss gambles with energy move

POSTED: September 4, 2008 5:00 a.m.

By all indications, Saxby Chambliss should have an easy time winning another term as Georgia's senior senator.

He had $4 million in his campaign bank account as of July 1 and he expects to receive plenty more in contributions, reserving $5.2 million worth of airtime for TV spots. He's got all the advantages of being a GOP incumbent in a state that's one of the most Republican-leaning in the nation.

You can add to that the fact that Chambliss' Democratic opponent, Jim Martin, had to spend all his money winning the primary against Vernon Jones. Martin is a decent enough guy, but he's not the kind of dynamic candidate who's going to excite the voters in a statewide election, as he showed in 2006 when he was trounced by Casey Cagle for lieutenant governor.

With all of that working in his favor, Chambliss seems to be taking a huge gamble that could cost him by the time Election Day rolls around on Nov. 4.

He is stepping into a political minefield by working with a group of Democratic and Republican senators, the "Gang of 10," on a compromise energy bill that would open up the Georgia coast to oil exploration but would also reduce tax breaks for oil companies.

Republicans are furious with Chambliss for negotiating with the enemy. He's been blasted by talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Neal Boortz; GOP activists are accusing Georgia's senator of neutralizing the one issue that seems to be working for the party this year, offshore drilling.

This is similar to the fix Chambliss got himself into last year on immigration, when he initially signed on with Democrats like Ted Kennedy for a bill that made provisions for guest workers and provided an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

It wasn't out of any Christian charity towards low-income immigrants; Chambliss was trying to help out his good friends who run large farming operations and need the cheap labor to harvest the crops.

The move didn't sit well with Georgia Republicans who hate the idea of undocumented immigrants moving into the state and they let Chambliss know it by booing him at the state convention and flooding his Senate office with phone calls.

Chambliss quickly dropped the bill and repositioned himself as a critic of the Bush administration for not providing enough border security. You haven't heard him promoting the idea of immigration reform since that big mistake.

With his latest actions, Chambliss is once again going against the grain on an issue that Republicans have been using to bash Democrats as we head into the fall campaigns.

GOP leaders have seized upon the idea that drilling off the Georgia coast and elsewhere is going to magically solve the nation's energy problems and lower the price of gasoline. In reality, the effects of offshore drilling will be minimal and won't even have an impact on gas prices for at least five to 10 years, but the issue has picked up support at the polls and Republicans are running with it.

Then here comes Chambliss, ruining the party by jumping into bed with a bunch of Democrats. What was he thinking?

Maybe Chambliss believes the November election is going to be a lot closer than people realize and he wants to secure some support from independent voters. Maybe he wants to be seen as the kind of dealmaker who can get things done in the Senate. Maybe he really believes that this energy compromise is the best the Republicans can get with the prospects looming of a Democratic president taking office next year.

It still seems that he's taking an enormous gamble on this one. While he may get some votes among moderate Georgians, he is running the risk of alienating a large part of the Republican base. Chambliss could also be giving his underfinanced and unexciting opponent an opening in a Senate race that really shouldn't be close.

This could be the issue to watch as the general election campaign gets under way. Can Chambliss afford to keep getting pounded by the talk radio shouters, or will he back away from his "Gang of 10" colleagues just as he backed away from the immigration bill? Can Martin take advantage of the infighting among Georgia Republicans on the offshore drilling question?

Pay close attention to this one.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia.



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