Originally created 09/12/98

Gubernatorial candidates near dead heat in latest poll



ATLANTA -- The first statewide poll since the summer primaries shows Georgia's two major gubernatorial candidates, Republican Guy Millner and Democrat Roy Barnes, in a near dead heat with about eight weeks to go before the Nov. 3 election.

The Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research poll also gives state Sen. Mark Taylor, D-Albany, a slight lead over Republican Fulton County Commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis for lieutenant governor.

The only statewide candidate in the poll with an overwhelming lead and a majority was Republican School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, whom Mason-Dixon showed beating Democratic nominee Joe Martin 51 percent to 25 percent, with 24 percent of respondents undecided.

The statewide poll of 829 voters, conducted for the Marietta Daily Journal, gave Mr. Millner 42 percent of the support in the governor's race and Mr. Barnes 41 percent, with 17 percent of respondents undecided.

But the margin of error in the poll was plus or minus 3.5 percent, meaning they were essentially even.

Mr. Barnes has been gaining ground on Mr. Millner, who had double-digit leads in head-to-head poll matchups against all of the Democratic gubernatorial challengers earlier this year.

In the most recent poll, Mr. Millner's name recognition still outdistances Mr. Barnes' with far more voters failing to recognize, or remaining neutral, about Mr. Barnes than about Mr. Millner.

That's not surprising, since Mr. Millner has run three statewide campaigns in the past four years, spending millions of dollars in TV advertising along the way. Only 1 percent of those polled didn't recognize Mr. Millner's name.

Mr. Millner was the Republican nominee for governor in 1994 and for the U.S. Senate in 1996, losing both general elections by slim margins.

Gregg Kenyon, press spokesman for Mr. Millner, said the campaign isn't surprised by the poll results because the Republican hopeful always expected a tight race.

"We are pleased to be leading Mr. Barnes. This is the first time in a post-primary poll where a Republican (gubernatorial) candidate has led a Democrat," Mr. Kenyon said.

Before picking up the endorsement of the Georgia Association of Educators teachers union Friday, Mr. Barnes told reporters the poll shows Mr. Millner's negative TV ad campaign is backfiring.

For more than a month, Mr. Millner has run a series of commercials claiming Mr. Barnes is "soft" on crime and welfare reform.

"What's happening is these negative attacks have boomeranged on him," Mr. Barnes said. "People are so fed up with politicians that distort and lie ... he's distorted and lied so much, after three elections, he's reaping what he sowed."

In fact, more than twice as many of those polled had an unfavorable opinion of Mr. Millner than of Mr. Barnes.

In other races, Mr. Taylor had a 39 percent to 35 percent lead on Mr. Skandalakis, with 26 percent undecided, and Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine was well up on his Democratic challenger, Rep. Henrietta Canty, D-Atlanta.

Perennial candidate John Frank Collins was beating former state welfare czar Michael Thurmond in the labor commissioner's race.

Two races, for attorney general and secretary of state, were nearly dead heats.

Next to Mr. Millner and Mr. Barnes, Mrs. Schrenko may be the best-known candidate in the poll, and that helped provide her with a substantial edge over Mr. Martin, former president of the Atlanta Board of Education.

"This poll makes it clear that Georgians are responding to our record of tougher standards, higher test scores, more local control and less bureaucracy," Mrs. Schrenko said. "Georgia education is finally headed in the right direction."