ATLANTA - Former Secretary of State Max Cleland, a survivor of crippling Vietnam War injuries, apparently won the Senate seat of retiring Democrat Sam Nunn Tuesday after a costly negative campaign in which he was outspent by more than 2-to-1.
His opponent, Atlanta temp-service tycoon Guy Millner, spent $5 million of his personal fortune to close a 16-point gap in the polls and pull even as Election Day neared.
But Mr. Cleland, a durable statewide vote-getter for more than a decade, was called the winner by television networks and the Associated Press based on exit polls and early voting trends.
Still, neither side was ready to declare the race over as the counting wore into the night.
"I think it's a little bit early," said Mr. Millner, 60, who lost to Gov. Zell Miller two years ago in his first bid for public office. "I believe we are going to celebrate a victory tonight.
"There is so much that is happening in this state that we have not even heard from," he reassured supporters gathered at a suburban Atlanta hotel. "I just hope the other side doesn't celebrate too early."
Mr. Cleland stayed huddled in a hotel room with advisers, refusing to declare victory until the ballots were tallied.
"I feel very good tonight and you should too. We have a great victory going," Mr. Cleland told a crowd of about 1,000 backers.
"It would really please met to see him triumph over this negative barrage," said Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, an announced Democratic candidate for governor. "There is a lot of goodwill in this state, a lot of people have known him a very long time."
With 77 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Cleland led Mr. Millner 736,625 votes or 48.9 percent, to 718,272 votes or 47.7 percent.
Libertarian Jack Cashin had 49,721 votes, or 3.4 percent.
The 54-year-old Mr. Cleland voted around the block from his parents' home in DeKalb County, with well-wishers greeting him as he entered and left the polling area next to Lithonia City Hall.
"I feel good about the outcome of this race," Mr. Cleland said, flashing a thumbs-up.
A relieved Mr. Millner, stepping out of his polling place in the Buckhead district of Atlanta, exclaimed, "November 5th, I didn't think, was ever going to get here."
In Mr. Nunn, the winner of Tuesday's election is replacing a Georgia political icon respected for his scholarly, reasoned approach to national and international problems during his 24 years in the Senate.
However, the campaign between the Republican Mr. Millner and Democrat Mr. Cleland gave voters little hope they would be sending another Nunn to Congress.
Mr. Millner, founder of Norrell Corp. temporary services and worth at least $250 million, was coming off a close, unsuccessful bid to unseat Gov. Zell Miller in 1994.
He ran a hard-hitting, costly race in dusting Republican opposition this summer during the heat of the Olympics frenzy, then almost immediately targeted Mr. Cleland as a liberal, Ted Kennedy-loving bureaucrat.
Mr. Cleland, a Vietnam War triple amputee who served 13 years as secretary of state before resigning last year, played it low-key. He seldom ventured outside Atlanta and piled up a double-digit lead by early October.
That's when some of the more than $5.5 million Mr. Millner put into his race for TV advertising began kicking in.
He used the infusion of cash to tar Mr. Cleland with two incidents from his past: a letter he wrote during his first year as secretary of state asking that a killer be paroled from prison; and a $200,000 lawsuit settlement paid to a fired Mr. Cleland employee after she snitched on political activities in his government office.
By late last week, polls showed the race a dead heat.
"I always believed there was going to be a tightening of that race," Mr. Howard said.
"The main thing that had an effect on the race was the $5 million Mr. Millner was able to spend out of his pocket," Mr. Howard said. "Max had a tremendous reservoir of goodwill ... He was clearly the second most popular guy in the state next to Nunn."
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said the commercials broached questions about Mr. Cleland that not been raised in the past.
"It is a very effective use of negative campaigning," Mr. Bullock said. "To withstand a negative onslaught, you have to first have created a positive image. Cleland never really defined himself. He was jolly and pleasant, a war hero, but what policy do you attach to his name?"
Mr. Millner blamed the attacks on Mr. Cleland's unwillingness to debate him on issues of substance.
The duo had three debates in the final three weeks of the race, but Mr. Cleland turned down dozens of other chances to face off with Mr. Millner.
"I'm troubled by the tenor of negative advertising," the Republican said. "My opponent not being willing to come out until Oct. 19 and share a joint appearance in the most important election in probably 40 years does not speak well for the process."
Mr. Millner also learned a lesson from 1994: work the hinterlands.
"It was not an Atlanta campaign, it was a very broad-based, grass-roots campaign," the Republican said. "Georgians have connected with us."
After voting Tuesday, Mr. Cleland discounted the possibility that voters would support President Clinton but reject Democrats running for Congress.
In anticipation of Dole's defeat, Republicans have encouraged voters to balance a Democratic White House with a GOP majority in Congress.
During the final days of the campaign, Mr. Cleland began pledging to learn from his race by pushing campaign finance reform in Washington.
He also tried the gimmick of suggesting an end to the divided seating arrangement in Congress to force lawmakers of different parties to work cooperatively.
Both major candidates raised about $3 million from supporters, but Mr. Cleland was outspent more than 2-to-1 because Mr. Millner dipped into his personal bank account.
"It's obvious we have to get a handle on money and politics. It's sweeping this system away," Mr. Cleland said.