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The South's primary power push
Georgia stands to gain attention, influence in 2016 race if SEC vote goes as expected
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To most people so far, the 2016 race for president resembles one of those myriad reality shows, where a baker’s dozen or more drama queens and kings take turns stabbing each other in the back until all but one are voted off the island.

Every week it seems, another Republican hopeful tosses his hat into a ring already so full it resembles the “coat bed” at a New Year’s Eve party. The field as it stands, still likely to grow, includes five current or former senators, six former or current governors, a neurosurgeon, a former business CEO and The Donald his ownself. It’s a rowboat of anglers so overloaded that early polls, usually pointless anyway this far out, show no trend other than name recognition for Donald Trump, likely fueled by his own starring gig in reality TV.

The Democratic field is a fraction that size, led by the behemoth campaign of Hillary Clinton and four (so far) wannabes waiting for her to stumble.

As the candidates begin the age-old process of gathering money and staff, setting up their ground game in key states and making Iowa and New Hampshire their new homes, Georgia could loom as a key player in the coronation dance that begins next winter.

Our state is among seven planning to hold presidential nomination votes March 1, now dubbed the “SEC primary” in honor of the football conference that most have in common. So far, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia are on board and others could follow. Several other states plan primaries that day but not in the same regional bloc.

The idea was the brainchild of Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp as a way to make both our state and the region as a whole lure the maximum amount of attention from candidates on their march toward the White House. What better way than to marshal the region’s collective strength and see whose phony Southern accent and pretend love for grits (aside from a few that are genuine) will survive the gantlet?

It’s a variation of an idea some have proposed to bring some sense of order to the scattershot system that has states climbing over each other to move up in the calendar. Once Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have taken their traditional turns racking up the balls, it makes sense to allow candidates to focus on states grouped by both geography and ideology.

The SEC primary, as a test case, will allow the candidates to get more bang for their media bucks by running ads in TV markets that stretch across state lines. And they’ll be able to concentrate their campaign time in a smaller area, saving time, money and wear-and-tear on themselves and their staffs, allowing more time with voters rather than mere drive-by airport speeches.

What the states get is more attention and influence in the presidential sweepstakes, which can pay off now and later. In the short term, it infuses states with campaign cash and forces candidates to focus on issues that matter to Southern voters. Down the road, it could lead to Washington jobs and greater influence for local political leaders who deliver votes for winning candidates.

Georgia will be among the biggest and most influential states on SEC primary day. It could top Texas as a competitive GOP contest if most concede the Lone Star State to favorite son Ted Cruz. Our state could emerge as an important battleground for both parties and in the general election.

For Republicans, it will be a key testing ground to see who can unite the tea party wing of the GOP, which is strong in our state, with more moderate establishment supporters. Democrats, meanwhile, see Georgia as a red state they could color blue next year and in the future as its demographics change.

The attention will find Georgia political leaders in huge demand from candidates begging for their support, boosting their individual profiles. That starts with popular second-term Gov. Nathan Deal, who so far doesn’t plan to back any one candidate. Other rising stars in the state GOP, such as Kemp, Attorney General Sam Olens and Hall County’s own Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, could find themselves equally popular. The same is true on the Democratic side for its top dog in Georgia, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

We hope it also draws visits to our area by candidates seeking to woo a loyal base of conservative voters who will be shopping for the right person to carry the banner into the fall election. If Georgia picks winners in March, there could be more drop-bys from the nominees before the fall vote.

It could be a fun, albeit bizarre, free-for-all that political junkies will love, even as others roll their eyes and cover their ears as the circus blusters through. That’s American politics, famous for its noise, bombast and bare-knuckle brawls, yet still the people’s choice, for the most part. When the time comes, let’s tune in and enjoy the show.

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