Analysis: Will Georgia governor campaign ever end?

PERRY, Ga. -- A major difference between Judgment Day and running for political office is that the St. Peter only runs through the list of lifelong transgressions once. Campaign opponents keep bringing them up.
If opponents don't, reporters will.
Last week's gubernatorial debate at the Georgia National Fair hosted by WMAZ-TV between Democrat Roy Barnes and Republican Nathan Deal is a case in point. Each candidate had to relive multiple episodes from his past.
The two have appeared in dozens of forums with other candidates since January. Most were sedate affairs, dealing solely with the issues and even boring the candidates. They're not dull now.
In Deal's case in Perry, the first chance to speak after his brief opening was to take a reporter's question about a new flyer Democrats have mailed.
It attacks him for bragging at a Tea Party rally of his opposition to the extension of the Voting Rights Act's preclearance requirement on Georgia and 18 other states. Running in a safe congressional district or GOP primary, such opposition is a plus but it's riskier statewide in the general election.
Deal frowned at the notion that the flyer aimed to inject racial passion into the election.
"I believe it is regrettable that politics has sunk to that level," he said.
Barnes' first question was about why he lost the governor's office eight years ago. Since it comes up often, he has his mea culpa down pat: he was too eager; he should have listened more and explained himself more.
Both candidates routinely parts of their lives replayed in the waning days of the race.
Deal accuses Barnes of representing clients before judges he had appointed. Deal said Barnes or his partners have made 36 appearances, but the former governor said he had only appeared before one.
Barnes admitted to having tried a case before Deal's son Jason who is now a judge. Barnes once appointed him as a district attorney.
"I appeared before him and he ruled in favor of me. Are you saying your son is corrupt?" Barnes thundered at his opponent.
Stolling down Memory Lane did pay one dividend for Barnes. Last week, Deal's campaign cried foul because Barnes took a tax deduction for a rental house he did not own at the time, according to copies of tax returns Barnes made public.
Ironically, when Barnes' accountant looked for the transgression -- which he said was a mistake -- he discovered another error that will result in Barnes getting a $20,000 refund.
The replays aren't usually so profitable.
They're rarely so straightforward either.
Consider one Deal assertion. He tries to tar Barnes for transferring $12 million from the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority for projects at the huge Atlantic Station development whose owner made a $10,000 campaign contribution to the Democrat.
Barnes attacks Deal for using his influence as a congressman in meetings with state officials to win a state permit for a landfill owned by his business partner and to get Hall County to pave a road for him. That's on top of attacks for Deal's meetings with state officials to keep a contract for a salvage business that he and the same partner own.
Deal dismisses the attacks as campaign tactics.
"This is the type of accusation Mr. Barnes has tried to feed on to make this one of the most difficult campaigns we've seen in modern history," he says.
The salvage meetings earned Deal the label "one of the most corrupt members of Congress" from a Washington group called CREW. The label comes up at every forum, and Deal has a snappy reply.
"First of all, I think you have to look at who's making the accusation," he said, describing the outfit as left-wing. "Being called unethical by a group like CREW is literally like being called ugly by a 'possum."
Just as often at debates and forums, Deal has to comment about his finances since newspapers have disclosed that he is on the hook for his debts created by his daughter and son-in-law's failed business. They also suggest he got those loans out of favoritism in the first place.
At a time when voters are chiefly concerned about the future of their own finances -- and the government's -- campaigns tend to bog down in discussions of candidates' pasts.
Part of the reason is that no one knows for certain what policy is best for the future, although we all have perfect hindsight.
"Elections are supposed to be fully transparent, rough and tumble," Barnes said at last Thursday's debate. "Because if you can't answer the questions right here, right now, certainly you won't be able to answer them sitting behind the governor's desk. You don't run from the press. You don't run from difficult decisions."
Just another two weeks of reliving these candidates' past decisions and professional low points. After Election Day, everyone will be looking forward, and the economy seems to offer the possibility of ample low points for the winners to fill the next generation of campaign debates.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at or (404) 589-8424.



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