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Our Views: The race for the race is on
Cagles exit opens governors race to hopefuls from both parties, offering voters more choices
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Next year’s election for governor already is shaping up to be a wide-open campaign, and there may be quite a few surprises still in store. And while we’re still more than a year out before the primaries, the race for the race has begun.

With Gov. Sonny Perdue term-limited from seeking a third go-round, his job already has drawn a lot of interest from both parties. Republicans hope to keep a seat they won in 2002 for the first time in more than a century. Democrats, buoyed by their national success, are out to regain a foothold as the majority party.

The race drew a half dozen candidates from each side before early April.

Then Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle threw the whole thing into a tizzy on April 15 when he said a disk problem in his neck would keep him from mounting a gubernatorial campaign. With the perceived GOP frontrunner on the sidelines, the announced candidates are left to jockey for the upper hand while others consider jumping in.

The early beneficiary of Cagle’s exit may be Secretary of State Karen Handel. Last week, she rolled out a campaign team of big name Republican players that indicates a serious bid that could boost her fundraising efforts. Her top opponent for the nomination may be Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who also has a strong organization and could be in position to pick up many of Cagle’s supporters.

Also running on the GOP side are state Rep. Austin Scott and Ray McBerry, with Libertarian John Monds also in the race. Two other potential contenders, Senate Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter of Johns Creek and Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, are taking a pass. Burkhalter will run for re-election to his current post, Olens for attorney general.

The vacuum created by their absence and Cagle’s departure could lead some heavyweight Republicans to enter the race. U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Grantville has bowed out, but fellow congressman Jack Kingston of Savannah and others still could get in.

And Sen. Johnny Isakson, who announced last year he would remain in the Senate instead of running for governor, could have second thoughts despite his insistence that he’ll stay put in Washington.

The Democratic field includes Attorney General Thurbert Baker, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and former Adjutant General David Poythress. But the party’s 500-pound gorilla is former Gov. Roy Barnes, who lost a contentious re-election bid to Perdue in 2002. He has maintained a high profile as a lawyer and could seek to ride the national Democratic tide back into office. Barnes said he would decide by June if he would join the race, but clearly the pressure is growing on him to do so.

Democrats are hungry for a chance to get back into power in Georgia and Barnes may be the one party member with enough statewide appeal to win back former "blue dogs" who have turned to the GOP in recent elections. He also may be the only Democrat who could raise enough money to challenge what is likely to be a well-funded, well-backed Republican nominee.

Barnes, appearing last week in Cumming at the Lanier-Forsyth Rotary Club, struck a populist, nonpartisan tone that might be a precursor to the kind of campaign he could conduct should he decide to run.

"The agenda is controlled by lobbyists," Barnes said. "It’s the personal politics of greed at its worst and we’re paying for it. ... For years, we had this whole idea that the common good overcame any individual interest and I’m afraid that has slipped away from us."

Such a centrist tone might work for any candidate in the race. The theme in Georgia and elsewhere in the next election cycle could be "throw the bums out" in light of the ongoing economic mess that has the nation and state reeling with job and income losses.

We saw some of that in the anti-tax "tea party" rallies in Gainesville and elsewhere. While most of those taking part were conservatives, many are equally fed up with Democrats and Republicans in high office who spend their tax money foolishly. Both parties have squandered the public’s trust, which could open the door for a independent, populist candidate for Georgia’s highest office.

Cagle could well have filled that role ably. A fiscal conservative, he has stayed above the fray in many of the hot-button political battles under the Gold Dome between extremists from the right and left. His calm demeanor and downhome persona could have provided a crossover appeal that many voters seek.

But the good news for Cagle’s supporters is that he likely will be re-elected as head of the state Senate. At age 43, his political future remains bright once his health problems are put behind him. Another try at the top office in four to eight years is a strong possibility.

Meanwhile, Georgians are likely to see an even earlier start to the campaign. With so many state officials in the race, each will to boost his or her name recognition and profile among voters by any means available.

No doubt, too, the looming election will dominate next year’s session of the legislature, with leaders in both parties using their agendas to further their candidates’ chances. That’s par for the course in any election year, but even more likely with so many competitive races.

With three state officials leaving their posts to reach for the big brass ring, the scramble to fill their jobs could be just as hotly contested as the battle for governor. And as members of the legislature take aim at those posts, that could open up some seats in the House and Senate.

The bottom line for voters is a plus: More candidates, more contested races, more choices and a change for real sweeping changes in state leadership, whatever your party or preference. Thus, it behooves us to tune in early and scrutinize each candidate closely to see how they measure up to our expectations.

It’s early in the process, but we’re already hoping for an issue-oriented campaign that will highlight each candidate’s strengths, not focus merely on their opponents’ perceived weaknesses. These are serious times that call for a serious approach to an important job. This is no time for trivial campaigns focusing on personalities, gimmicky TV ads or the usual dirty tricks. Georgians want a governor with the skills, intellect and personal touch to lead us through a challenging era.

The candidates from both parties who best capture that tone and appeal to Georgians’ hope for a bright future will earn the best chance at calling the big house on West Paces Ferry Road home come January 2011.