IF YOU listened between the lines, you could hear it rumbling across the hotel ballroom where Democrats gathered to crown Roy Barnes their champion for governor: "Four more years! Four more years!"
Since Gov. Zell Miller can't constitutionally run for a third term, Barnes and running mate Mark Taylor are doing it for him.
Miller struck the tone of Tuesday's partisan fest, warning Democratic celebrants -- and the TV cameras behind them -- that "we have done much, but it can be undone."
"WE CANNOT afford to send the message to the nation that we are willing to gamble our future on a television slogan or a negative ad," he said, "andwe can not wait three or four years for an inexperienced governor to learn the job while the rest of the nation rushes past us."
Cut and print it -- a tailor-made advertisement for Barnes' November race against GOP business tycoon Guy Millner.
Both parties will be trying this fall to give the people what they want. What polls are indicating is people want more of the same.
Democrat polls say more than 60 percent of voters believe Georgia is on the right track. "That's astronomical," says the Democrats' executive director, Steve Anthony.
Another survey, taken for the Senate Democratic Caucus, found only 22 percent of voters were dissatisfied with the state tax system.
THAT PUTS a damper on what Millner hoped would be his knockout issue, abolishing the yearly ad valorem tax on auto tags, which the GOP used to win the last governor's race in Virginia.
"That is not a problem in Georgia. That is not a nerve ... Millner is looking for a problem," said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, who commissioned the poll.
Democrats know their best shot against Millner's money machine is to convince voters he's the "Anti-Miller," an ogre who would take pre-kindergarten and HOPE college scholarships away from babies.
That's not as easy a sell for Barnes as it was for Miller, who used the tactic to great effect in his own race with Millner four years ago.
FOR ONE THING, Barnes opposed the state lottery more vehemently than Millner ever did. He became a convert, as did Millner, when the lottery turned out to be a hit with the public and a financial bonanza.
And Millner is not about to concede that Barnes is the better man to continue the Miller legacy. Some of his earliest ads praised the governor by name, lauding his lottery-funded school programs as "home runs."
History shows that even beloved politicians -- and Miller's ratings are soaring at 70 percent approval -- can't transfer their popularity to others.
But what Miller can hand off is a record of tougher welfare rules, "two strikes" life sentences and tax cuts, which Barnes wears like a coat of armor against the Republicans' onslaught.
"I don't think it's Zell Miller's personal popularity, but the general feeling of ease people have -- that's what is rubbing off," said Kerwin Swint, a Republican consultant who teaches politics at Kennesaw State University.
BARNES, A 22-YEAR veteran of the legislature from Cobb County, has a well-worn line to capture the mood: "If you had a business paying the dividends Georgia is paying ... you'd be wanting to keep that crowd around. In fact, maybe you'd want to give them some stock options."
While Miller casts a long shadow over the governor's race, the real referendum on his eight years may come in the race for the No. 2 job.
Sen. Mark Taylor, D-Albany, the Democrats' nominee for lieutenant governor, was Miller's Senate floor leader and protege.
His name is on nearly every important piece of Miller's legislation (though critics will point out that Miller, a former Senate president, could have gotten his bills through that chamber with Pee Wee Herman as his point man).
TAYLOR'S GOP opponent, Mitch Skandalakis, is a career agitator. He rode into office as Fulton County chairman on a wave of voter tax revolt, and has been an anti-tax firebrand ever since.
If voters are marching in the streets this fall over state taxes, Skandalakis is their drum major. Otherwise, he loses his issue -- and probably the election.
Frank LoMonte covers Georgia politics for Morris News Service.
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