Hillary Clinton's glide to this year's Democratic presidential nomination has hit a serious snag. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, her toughest rival, has caught an early wave that is threatening to swamp the Clinton cruise to reassuming the White House.
Watching Clinton fight for political survival brings back memories from 16 years ago. Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton teetered on the brink of disaster as 1992 began. Stories were spreading about his womanizing and Vietnam War draft dodging. Gennifer Flowers, who claimed to have had a long-running affair with him, was on the cover of multiple tabloids.
In late 1991, I phoned Clinton and asked about Gennifer. He laughed and said, "It's old news." Before long, it was new news again. When the Flowers episode broke, Hillary was visiting then-Georgia Gov. Zell Miller and saw the first TV dispatch at the Governor's Mansion. Miller was the first person to provide her support and advice on how to handle the growing scandal.
Bill managed to fight back from total oblivion in New Hampshire, but he still didn't win the primary. Even though he declared himself the "comeback kid" after a second-place finish, he left the state without a victory and was living on borrowed time.
That's where Georgia came in. Our Democratic primary that year was Bill's firewall. Zell may have been Clinton's closest political ally outside Arkansas. Miller had moved Georgia's primary forward to give his fellow governor a much-needed early boost, and Miller and his operatives treated the 1992 Clinton Georgia effort as though it were Miller's own campaign.
The Miller team worked rural Democrats, including legislators and sheriffs, to validate Bill as a bona fide Southern Democrat they could openly back, and many did so, instead of fleeing from the national ticket as they have so often done. Their work not only provided Bill with his crucial first primary win, that team -- including now nationally known James Carville and Paul Begala - managed to eke out a victory in the general election, delivering Georgia's electoral votes to the Clinton-Gore ticket.
Bill Clinton actually won Georgia in the general election on the strength of his performance outside metro Atlanta. Ross Perot's presence in the race, draining votes from Bush in Georgia and nationally, didn't hurt.
The Peach State's key role in Clinton's ascension to the White House was reflected in his administration, with Georgians occupying important posts. Georgians were installed throughout the federal government at levels unmatched except during native son Jimmy Carter's presidency.
In contrast to Georgia's central role in the 1992 Clinton presidential run, our state is now a veritable backwater in the Clinton family's effort to win back the White House. Hillary does have the endorsements of all three statewide Democratic officeholders: Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. None have anything close to the political pull Miller had in 1992, however, and none are likely to stick out their necks anywhere near as far for Hillary as Miller did for Bill.
On top of that, Hillary appears to have no plans to try to rebuild the electoral coalition that won the state's convention delegates and electoral votes for her husband. Her campaign appears to be focused only on core metro Atlanta, where she will face tough sledding battling Obama for the votes of African-Americans and affluent white liberals, groups that make up a significant portion of his support.
Hillary's lack of focus on the small-town and rural voters who helped her husband carry the state in 1992 is illustrated by her hiring as a top Georgia aide a woman whose other political project is managing a left-wing primary challenge to Democratic Congressman Jim Marshall. Marshall is very popular in his rural district, and is just the sort of Democrat the Clintons would have won over in 1992.
The contrast between the 1992 and 2008 Clinton presidential campaigns is yet another indicator of the steep decline of Georgia's Democrats. In 1992 the Clintons counted on Georgia Democrats to deliver for them in the primary and the general election. This year, the state is little more than a bump in the road that will be quickly forgotten in the summer and totally ignored this fall.
No matter what happens in New Hampshire, Georgia won't be a central player in Hillary's effort to survive. The safety net has been taken down.
Bill Shipp's column on Georgia politics appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published Jan. 9, 2008.