Originally created 07/20/98

Rivals take jabs at Millner



ATLANTA -- Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Guy Millner played target Sunday in his first and only televised debate with fellow GOP rivals, but the two-time general election loser was looking beyond Tuesday's Georgia primary.

Mr. Millner, a multimillionaire businessman, was accused of trying to buy the election, having serious potential conflicts of interest and lacking the courage to face opponents or run state government.

But Mr. Millner, who has a huge lead in the polls, promised to take part in debates if one of his challengers gets enough votes Tuesday to force a Republican runoff Aug. 11.

He gave viewers a brief glimpse of the possible general election campaign when he decided to drag Democratic frontrunner Roy Barnes into the GOP debate, referring to him as "lawyer Barnes" and alluding to Georgia General Assembly votes to release criminals from prison.

Mr. Barnes, a Mableton attorney and longtime state legislator, is seeing his General Assembly record used against him extensively in the Democratic primary race. He also has been criticized for representing criminals in court.

Mr. Millner, founder of Norrell Temporary Services Inc., sought to dampen another potential general election issue by vowing, if elected governor, to put his assets into a blind trust. Mr. Millner disclosed in May a net worth of $167 million.

"I will make doggone sure it (Norrell) does not do business with the state of Georgia. The state may be the loser," he said.

"That simply won't fly. A blind trust won't cut it," responded GOP candidate Michael Bowers, who argued that Mr. Millner should sell all of his more than $100 million in Norrell stock.

"You probably ought to check with your lawyers on that one," Mr. Bowers told Mr. Millner.

Norrell has done millions of dollars worth of business with the state over the years. The company also provides services to many of Georgia's biggest businesses, which in turn do business with the state.

Sunday's debate was aired only in Atlanta on television station WSB. It was delayed more than an hour because the British Open golf tournament was forced into a playoff.

Most of the 10 candidates for governor have participated in a dozen or more debates and forums, including several televised showdowns.

However, Sunday's appearance was Mr. Millner's first in front of the cameras with his fellow Republicans. Afterward, he took off for a barbecue in Gwinnett County, skipping a Sunday night debate televised statewide.

Mr. Millner can afford to ignore his opponents because polls show him well ahead of Mr. Bowers, Christian activist Nancy Schaefer and health-care executive Bruce Hatfield.

Mr. Millner, who won the party's nomination for governor in 1994 and the U.S. Senate in 1996 only to lose both general elections, has spent more than $2.5 million on television advertising and still more on radio commercials. He has poured about $2.9 million of his own money into the race so far.

Two media-sponsored polls last week showed Mr. Millner more than 30 percentage points up on his closest rival, Mr. Bowers, who was Georgia's attorney general for 16 years.

If no candidate for governor wins a majority of votes in Tuesday's primaries, the top two will face off Aug. 11. Polls suggest Mr. Barnes will wind up in a Democratic runoff with Georgia Secretary of State Lewis Massey.

With all four Republicans agreeing Sunday to fight crime, oppose affirmative action and cut taxes, the only time Mr. Millner's opponents really ganged up on him was when he was asked about his unwillingness to debate.

"I doubt very seriously he (Mr. Millner) would consider hiring one of his personal executives based on a very slick ... video without an interview," Mr. Bowers said. "It makes me wonder if you've really got what it takes.

"If you're not willing to show up, you can't buy Georgia," Mr. Hatfield said.

"I don't think you can be an invisible candidate," added Mrs. Schaefer.

However, Mr. Millner defended his tactics, saying it was more important to "listen to the voters."

"You can't win an election when you just listen to political types," he said. "I've probably shaken the hands of 75,000 voters."

Mr. Millner denied trying to "buy" his way into office.

"I don't think anybody can buy a political office in this state," he said. "I'm not going to apologize for my financial success. I believe every Georgian should have the opportunity that I had."

Besides Mr. Barnes and Mr. Massey, the Democratic field includes former Georgia Labor Commissioner David Poythress; state Sen. Steve Langford, D-LaGrange; and political newcomers Morris James and Carlton Myers.