ATLANTA - A day after narrowly surviving one of the state's most costly U.S. Senate races, Max Cleland promised to co-sponsor campaign finance reforms aimed at severely limiting campaign spending and eliminating special-interest contributions.
Mr. Cleland conferred with Georgia U.S. Sens. Paul Coverdell and Sam Nunn and met with supporters Wednesday only hours after Republican opponent Guy Millner conceded defeat in an election decided by fewer than 28,000 votes.
The Senate race was part of a good-news, bad-news day for Georgia Democrats, who re-elected their incumbent secretary of state, Lewis Massey, but lost ground in the state legislature and failed to reclaim any of the Republicans' eight U.S. House seats.
They also failed to carry the state's 13 electoral votes for President Clinton, even as the Democratic ticket was winning next-door Florida and Tennessee.
In the race to replace Nunn, Democrat Cleland beat Millner with 49 percent of 2.2 million votes cast.
Millner received 48 percent. The difference may have been Libertarian Jack Cashin, who wound up receiving 81,652 votes.
Coverdell, a Republican, estimated three out of four Libertarian votes probably would have otherwise gone to Millner, providing the margin of victory.
In conceding the race, Millner also noted Cashin's impact.
Libertarian votes in 1992 sent then-U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler, D-Ga., into a runoff with Coverdell when no candidate received a majority.
Coverdell took the runoff, and Democratic state lawmakers changed the law so that the winner of the U.S. Senate general election only needed 45 percent of the vote.
Another law eliminating straight-party voting also may have had an impact. Cleland ran ahead of Democratic President Bill Clinton in Georgia.
But Cleland said the nearly $6 million Millner spent out of his own pocket had a bigger impact on the outcome.
"We can't have Senate seats for sale," the senator-elect said Wednesday before lunching with supporters.
Millner and Cleland both raised about $3 million from supporters. But the Republican, a temporary services tycoon, dipped into his substantial personal fortune to buy a string of hard-hitting attack ads against Cleland.
Democrats claimed the money Millner put into the race was the third-highest ever in a U.S. Senate contest.
"Big bucks in politics, especially when it comes out of someone's own pocket, only perpetuates the ability to tell the big lie (about an opponent)," Cleland said.
"That's what people resent, the big bucks spent in character assassination campaigns against the other candidate."
Cleland has already called for a special session of Congress on campaign finance reform, and he told reporters Wednesday his first official act will be to co-sponsor a measure being pushed by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain to place voluntary limits on spending and eliminate political-action committee contributions and money funnelled through political parties.
Under the proposal, Cleland said, U.S. Senate candidates in Georgia would be able to spend 30- or 40-cents per voter. With Georgia having 3.8 million registered voters, that would mean a limit of about $1.1 million to $1.5 million.
Less money would mean more face-to-face campaigning with voters said Cleland, who was severely criticized for doing less of that type of politicking than any major statewide candidate in recent memory.
In fact, Millner said he had no choice but to run the TV barrage because Cleland ignored the campaign trail and tried to coast to victory on his reputation as a Vietnam War triple amputee who served as Georgia secretary of state and head of the U.S. Veterans Administration.
Georgia Republican Party Chairman Rusty Paul said the negative commercials had a clear impact on the race, perhaps one that cut both ways.
"There is no question that I saw some reaction against it," Paul said. "At the same time, when we started this campaign, Max Cleland was the second most popular public official in this state (to Nunn). The only way you could make this race competitive was by pointing out that it was not Saint Max.
"Did we run one or two commercials too many? That's a legitimate point. There is no question negative campaigning, negative ads, will create a backlash and over time that backlash can be significant."
Coverdell expects Congress to act against foreign contributors routing money through the parties to candidates, as has been alleged against the National Democratic Campaign Committee.
However, he said Cleland's aim to limit expenditures may violate a candidate's constitutional right of free speech.
And besides, he noted, millionaire candidates haven't exactly been sweeping the country in elections. In Georgia, the two candidates who spent the most money out of their own pockets, Millner and U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Democratic opponent, Michael Coles, both lost Tuesday.
"With the people who have invested large sums of money, it hasn't necessarily borne fruit," he said.
In other state races:
Mr. Massey, appointed to replace Cleland as the state's chief elections official, won re-election with 54 percent of the vote over Republican David Shafer and a Libertarian opponent.
Public Service Commissioners Mac Barber, a Democrat, and Bob Durden, a Republican, took narrow re-election victories. The victory by Durden - a recently converted Democrat - ruined the political comeback of former insurance commissioner Tim Ryles.
Four state constitutional amendments and two referendums were approved, with voters defeating only one measure, which would have allowed farm industries to tax themselves for agriculture promotions. Among those passed was a measure allowing local school boards to ask voters for a 1-cent sales tax increase for school construction or property tax relief.