In Roy Barnes’ announcement that he had decided to run for governor again, he tried to say all the right things he thought voters would want to hear.
He was conciliatory, a little apologetic, and tried to give the appearance that he really understands why he and his sidekick Bobby Kahn enraged so many voters in 2002 that they booted him from the governor’s office and elected Republican Sonny Perdue instead.
He didn’t listen to others enough when he was governor, Barnes conceded. He told the cute anecdote of how his mother used to say he was "the hardest-headed kid God put on the face of the Earth."
"I realize I was impatient and I had an aggressive agenda," Barnes said. "Listening is something I didn’t do enough of when I was governor. I tried to do too much, too fast. My heart was in the right place but I was impatient and didn’t consult enough different people outside the Capitol."
I’ve known Barnes since he was a young attorney in Cobb County getting ready to run his first race for the legislature. I can’t really decide if he was sincere about those lessons he supposedly learned from the disaster of 2002.
Deep down, I would guess Barnes still thinks he took the correct course when he aggressively tried to resolve Georgia’s longstanding problems with highways, education, healthcare, and the state flag — an approach that made a lot of voters mad and cost him the governor’s office.
The passage of time shows Barnes was correct about the need to address those issues. Perdue has done little to address the state’s problems, which means our roads are more crowded, our schools still rank in the bottom 10 percent of the states and the number of people without health insurance now approaches two million.
There are many voters who are quite happy with a low-energy governor who avoids the major issues. After all, Perdue was comfortably reelected with 58 percent of the vote in 2006. Barnes is betting that a majority of the voters want to try a more activist approach.
That’s really the pivotal question for the governor’s race: Are voters ready to wake up from the big sleep of the past eight years, or do they want to continue with the muddling approach exemplified by the Perdue administration?
At this point in the campaign, the Republican nominee (whoever that turns out to be) would seem to have the numbers running in his or her favor.
There are people who cite the results of last November’s general election as a good omen for Democrats, when a record turnout of black voters helped Barack Obama run a competitive race against John McCain for the state’s electoral votes and enabled Jim Martin to push Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss into a runoff.
But the high turnout in 2008 — 3.9 million voters — was during a presidential year. Voter turnout always drops off in non-presidential election years. The turnout in the 2010 general election will probably be closer to the 2.1 million who cast ballots in the December runoff last year — a smaller slice of the electorate where the Republican vote tends to be heavier.
By way of comparison, Chambliss led Martin by about 109,000 votes in the general election, but expanded that winning margin to more than 318,000 votes in the Dec. 2 runoff. Those numbers should be a concern for any Democrat who plans to run for statewide office next year.
Barnes does give Democrats at least a shot at being competitive. Any of the other Democratic candidates would get, at best, 45 percent of the general election vote against the Republican nominee. One thing that Barnes can do very well is raise money, so he would have more of a fighting chance.
Early polls show Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine is running a couple of points ahead of Barnes, while Secretary of State Karen Handel runs a couple of points behind. That’s a sign that we could have a very close election.
I don’t think there’s any question that Barnes will win the Democratic nomination. Can he convince enough people that he’s really learned his lesson to win a general election?
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.