All through the spring and summer months, whenever he would discuss his upcoming Senate race with reporters, Saxby Chambliss would always remind them: "We know that this is going to be a very tough race."
I tended to pay little attention to that disclaimer, especially when it looked like Chambliss' Democratic opponent would be DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, a candidate with a troubled personal history.
Even when it turned out that Chambliss would be facing Jim Martin, the political experts both inside and outside Georgia classified the race as safely in the bag for the Republican incumbent. With all that money in his bank account and an opponent who's not exactly the most charismatic candidate, who would have thought otherwise?
As it turns out, Chambliss may have had a much better feel for the state's political landscape than any of the so-called experts and analysts. With less than a month to go before Election Day, the unbeatable incumbent suddenly looks more and more vulnerable.
Ever since the financial services industry blew up in mid-September, Chambliss' wide lead in the polls has been steadily shrinking. Where he once was ahead of Martin by 17 or 18 points, the race is narrowing to a dead heat.
The most recent polls released last week came from two Georgia firms run by Republican consultants. These are not polling firms that are going to skew their numbers to make a Democratic candidate look stronger than he really is. And yet, these polls from GOP firms showed that Chambliss was either ahead of Martin by only 47-44 percent, or tied with Martin at 45-45 percent.
It doesn't get much closer than that.
Chambliss has been a favorite target of Georgia Democrats because of the nastiness of the 2002 Senate race between him and Max Cleland. Many Democrats will never forgive Chambliss for running a controversial TV spot that linked Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam War veteran, to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Democratic animosity toward Chambliss was always going to be a factor in his re-election race. Chambliss' bigger problem is that he is also stirring up a lot of anger among Republicans because of his support last year of an immigration reform measure, his work with Democratic senators on an energy bill this summer, and his vote for the bill to bail out Wall Street.
Because of these unpopular stands, Chambliss is now being viciously criticized by party activists on GOP Web sites. Some anonymous Republicans even set up a new Web site, FireSaxby.com, that has stepped up the personal attacks on the senator.
Here's a sampling of some recent comments from Republican bloggers:
- Saxby is not only totally inept, he is a pathological liar as well.
- Until he remembers he is elected as a Republican by Republicans and he starts voting as a fiscal conservative, my support is gone!
- Appeals to personal responsibility are lost on a hack like Saxby, who takes none himself and wants us to blame the Dems, the borrowers, the government, or ANYBODY except him. Fire him!
- Saxby did WHATEVER Bush wanted him to be. He's a good, obedient little boy.
- Senator Chambliss gave us 700 billion reasons to choose another man to represent us ... he opted to pass the burden of failing companies on you, your family, your children.
His votes for spending bills that has put our national debt, deficits at record levels, the support of the amnesty bill, & his vote against S-CHIP is enough for me to vote for a democrat for the first time since Sam Nunn back in 1990.
With friends like these, who needs enemies? It looks like Chambliss needs to do some fence-mending within his own partisan base, and quickly, if he wants to go back to Washington for another term.
The political publications that handicap the Senate races have been taking note of Chambliss' plunging poll numbers. Where once they ranked this seat as "safely Republican," they are now downgrading it to "leans Republican" and they may soon move it into the "tossup" category.
The late Al Ciraldo, one of the best basketball announcers to ever grace the state's radio waves, would have put it this way: "Hang on to your hats, brothers and sisters. We've got a thriller brewing here."
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service. His column appears Thursdays.