So the 500-pound gorilla has escaped his cage and jumped back into the political jungle.
Odd imagery, perhaps, that's what many considered Roy Barnes to be before he decided to end his seven-year exile and jump into the 2010 governor's race.
Barnes was the last Democrat to hold that office from 1998 to 2002, but his re-election bid was thwarted by upstart Republican Sonny Perdue, ending the GOP's 130-year drought in the state's top job.
Since then, Barnes practiced law in metro Atlanta and bided his time as the political tides changed in Georgia. Now he's ready to try and lift the now-minority Democrats back into power.
And with due respect to the other Democrats already in the field, Barnes' entry was no mere blip on the radar. Even before he entered the race, he was swamping challengers Thurbert Baker, DuBose Porter and David Poythress in the polls and may face an easy path to the nomination.
Or not; who knows? But he does have two clear advantages the others don't have: 1. name recognition, which leads to, 2. the ability to raise campaign cash. Democrats know it will take a lot of money to knock off whoever the Republican challenger will be, in a state that has tilted to the GOP for most of the decade.
Yet Barnes does enter the race with baggage. In announcing his candidacy, he admitted mistakes in his first term and promised to "listen better." His re-election bid was undone in '02 by three main factors: the growing Republican tide; his push to remove the Confederate symbol from the state flag; and his alienation of the state's teachers with his education reform plans.
The Rebel flag group isn't much of a factor any longer, especially after Perdue put the old flag to rest with the 2004 vote. And while Republicans still rule the roost — the governor's mansion, majority in both houses of the General Assembly and most state offices, both U.S. Senators and seven of 13 House members — there may be a few small cracks in the armor. Sen. Saxby Chambliss needed a runoff to hold off challenger Jim Martin last year in his re-election bid, and Barack Obama earned a higher percentage of votes in the presidential race than a Democrat has in several years.
Teachers still may hold a grudge over Barnes' education plans, and improved CRCT test scores statewide may give the Republicans in power a boost on that issue going into the campaign. So his comeback attempt still is an uphill battle, even for someone with Barnes' political chops.
One advantage he or another Democrat may have is that the Republicans don't have a clear frontrunner. Early polls show most voters undecided, with John Oxendine holding a small lead over challengers Nathan Deal, Karen Handel, Eric Johnson, Ray McBerry and Austin Scott.
Republicans could wind up spending a lot of money and effort slicing each other up in the primary season, leaving a limping candidate left for the general election, or so goes conventional wisdom. Yet that didn't hamper them in 2002; Perdue emerged from a split field to claim the nomination, then the election.
From the voters' perspective, the looming horse race isn't as important as which issues will be the focus of the campaign and who will offer the best ideas.
It's all but certain that the state economy will remain the biggest item on anyone's agenda going into 2010. Even if this year's spending cuts and federal stimulus money dodged the problem for now, a balanced budget will be hard to maintain if tax revenues continue to drop. Any candidate with a clear plan to maximize a dwindling treasury and make tough spending decisions, all while maintaining funding for public safety and education, may rule the day.
The other thought on our minds is the tone this campaign will take. We got some early indication when candidates reacted to Barnes' announcement. Among the Democrats' response was Poythress noting that Barnes "was not able to unite and direct the people of Georgia ..."
On the GOP side, Scott's campaign likened Barnes to Gen. William Sherman in his Civil War march through Georgia, perhaps a way to reignite the old flag debate. Others, thankfully, had more statesmanlike responses.
The tone of the campaign will be important. With the economy in recession and the state facing the usual challenges of transportation, water, schools and more, the 2010 governor's race is no time for another round of political mud wrestling. In serious times, voters are more likely to reject hacks who try to turn the race into a contest of slogans, attack ads with rats and image-building instead of substance.
Georgia needs a grown-up governor who can unite warring factions in the legislature while representing our state capably in Washington and the world. We are no longer a backwater Southern state with leaders who can rally support by flashing their red suspenders, bicycle stunts and populist rambles. We need a serious approach to our problems from a skilled, capable leader who is seeking more than just another notch on the resume.
Will we get such a race? We will if we demand it from the candidates and keep the spotlight on issues that matter. We will if we cast our votes not based on the best TV spot or bumper sticker but for who can solve problems with honest solutions and not just tell us what we want to hear.
The field is set and the race is before us. If 2010 seemed like a long way off before, keep in mind that the primary is just a little more than a year away. It's time to start paying attention.