ATLANTA - For Republicans, next weekend's state convention in Savannah offers the first and best opportunity to show off the 2000 crop of legislative candidates, as the party launches its biennial quest to capture control of the General Assembly.
But even the GOP faithful concede privately that the odds are remote of picking up the 13 seats necessary to gain a majority in the House or the seven required to take over the Senate.
What Republicans really are salivating over are the 2002 elections, the first to follow next year's redistricting, when state lawmakers draw new congressional and legislative boundaries based on the results of this year's census. Most of the phenomenal population growth that has taken place in Georgia since the 1990 census has been in suburban areas dominated by the GOP.
"We could pick up five to 10 seats in the House just off reapportionment because of growth in the suburbs of Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah, Macon and Columbus," said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, ranking Republican on the House Legislative & Congressional Reapportionment Committee. "I truly believe that after reapportionment, we're going to see a power shift."
But Democrats counter that they still likely will hold the majority in both houses of the Legislature next year, giving them the power to neutralize demographic trends favorable to Republicans.
"The state is broken out 50-50 or better (between Republican and Democratic voters)," said John Kirincich, Georgia Democratic executive director. "If you've got a 50-50 breakdown statewide, you can draw a map with a large majority of Democratic seats, and that's what we're going to do."
The Democrats enjoyed a much larger majority in the General Assembly going into the most recent reapportionment nine years ago.
But their ability to flex those political muscles was hampered in 1991 by the U.S. Justice Department, which insisted on district lines that would increase black representation in the state's congressional delegation and General Assembly. Georgia is among 16 states that must submit their redistricting plans to the Justice Department to ensure that black voting strength is not diminished.
As a result, black voters - the Democrats' most loyal constituency - were concentrated in districts where they comprised a majority, leaving surrounding districts with larger white majorities likely to vote Republican.
"Once Republicans fielded solid candidates, they were able to capture those `bleached' districts," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "The Justice Department was pushing so hard to maximize black representation that it flipped districts over."
The results were so dramatic that, in just two election cycles, Georgia went from a state with only one Republican congressman - former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - to a congressional delegation where Republicans outnumber Democrats 8-3. The phenomenon also is widely credited with playing a major part in the GOP's massive gains in the General Assembly during the past decade.
Republicans predict the same dynamics will be at work next year, again to their advantage.
Mark Rountree, president of Landmark Communications Inc., an Atlanta-area political consulting firm that works with Republican legislative candidates, noted that the south Georgia interior has no black state senators, despite its 37 percent black population.
"They're going to have to draw at least one Senate seat in south Georgia that's black," he said. "That should (also) create an additional Republican seat."
But Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, who helped lead the fight for more black representation a decade ago, expects the number of black lawmakers to remain about the same after redistricting. For one thing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1996 in a case involving Georgia congressional districts that lines cannot be drawn based solely on race.
With the Republicans posing much more of a threat to the Democrats today than 10 years ago, Mr. Brooks said he believes partisan politics, not racial considerations, will dominate 2001 redistricting.
"We can draw (districts) based on party affiliation, but not race," said Mr. Brooks, chairman of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. "The court has left the door wide open. The sky's the limit when it comes to fighting based on party affiliation."
State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, who headed the Legislative Black Caucus during the 1991 redistricting, said the electoral success he, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and other blacks have enjoyed in recent years demonstrates that they can win without contriving majority-black districts.
"The future of politics isn't in majority-black districts," Mr. Thurmond said. "It's in blacks getting elected in districts with diverse constituencies."
But racial politics aside, the population patterns of the past decade still work to the Republicans' advantage, said Doug Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia.
He said the most dramatic growth has occurred in the suburbs around Atlanta, populated by middle- and upper-income families from other parts of the country who have brought their Republican voting habits with them, and in the mountains of North Georgia, full of well-to-do retirees who grew disenchanted with Florida.
State Republican Chairman Chuck Clay says the GOP is a shoo-in to pick up the 12th congressional seat Georgia is bound to gain after reapportionment, a district that is expected to be carved out of affluent suburbs north of Atlanta.
But Mr. Kirincich said the success of Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes in addressing issues of major concern to suburbanites - including education, transportation and air quality - should cut into Republican strength in those areas. In 2002, the first election following redistricting, Mr. Barnes is expected to head his party's ticket as he seeks a second term.
"The Republicans' less-government philosophy isn't going to play in the suburbs," Mr. Kirincich said. "People want the government to help solve these problems."
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The general public may attend this weekend's state Republican convention at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center on Hutchinson Island by paying a $40 fee, good for admission to the convention floor. Tickets to the annual dinner Friday night, to be held at the center's Chatham Ballroom, will cost $50 per person. Tickets to the Chairman's Breakfast on Saturday morning in the same location will cost $40 per person.
Here is a look at the schedule for the two-day convention:
2 p.m.: Education program, First Call to Order by Georgia Republican Chairman Chuck Clay, with welcoming remarks by Ellis Cook, mayor pro tem of the Savannah City Council. Afternoon speakers will include state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson of Savannah, House Minority Leader Bob Irvin of Atlanta and Chatham County Sheriff Al St. Lawrence.
5 p.m.: Convention recesses for the day
6 p.m.: Reception with Georgia's Republican congressmen, Georgia International Gallery
7 p.m.: Convention dinner with guest speaker Ralph Reed, Atlanta-based political consultant and former executive director of The Christian Coalition
8:30 a.m.: Chairman's breakfast with guest speaker Alan Keyes, Republican presidential candidate
10 a.m.: Convention reconvenes. Speakers will include U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, all eight Georgia Republican congressmen, former Attorney General Michael Bowers and state Rep. Anne Mueller of Savannah. As the last order of business before adjourning at approximately 5 p.m., delegates will elect a committeeman, committeewoman and at-large delegates to this summer's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.