ATLANTA - When Georgians wanted to learn if their state was in danger of terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, it wasn't the governor, the head of the Georgia National Guard or the state's emergency-relief agency, who delivered the news. It was the mayor of Atlanta.
During the 1996 Olympics held in Conyers, Savannah, Columbus and cities across the state, it was Atlanta's mayor who appeared most often on network television.
Atlanta mayors also represent the state in trade missions and conventions. And even though many Georgians may not feel closely tied to the capital city, in the eyes of the rest of the world, Atlanta and its mayor personify 8.2 million residents from Tybee Island to Hiawassee.
Most of those 8.2 million can't vote on the next Atlanta mayor. They must accept the choice of the 400,000 who live in the city and watch in the mean time as the candidates define themselves.
"To me this is a very important race, mostly because for over a decade I have been hoping that all the leaders in Georgia would be working together for all our sakes," said Jeffrey Rosensweig, Emory University trade expert. "The city of Atlanta, which is barely one tenth the state population, is the core of our transportation and infrastructure, but it is also the core of our image. ... It's not Atlanta vs. Augusta. It's Georgia versus Texas."
This year, three candidates have emerged as the most likely to win in November, an investment salesman, an economist and a consultant. Each has pledged to restore Atlanta's luster and to take a leadership role in the state.
Robb Pitts, Gloria Bromell-Tinubu and Shirley Franklin disagree on many local issues, but they sound identical when they talk about Atlanta's relationship with the rest of the state. Outgoing Mayor Bill Campbell has done little to bridge the divide between Atlanta and people in cities like Savannah, Athens and Augusta, they say.
"We have no choice but to cooperate," Mr. Pitts said, noting how interdependent cities have become concerning issues such as water, roads, passenger rail and air pollution.
Ms. Franklin sees it the same way.
"We are now at the point where the future of the city is tied to the success of Athens, Columbus, Macon, Augusta," she said.
Ms. Bromell-Tinubu said the benefits of economic links go both ways.
"I would certainly work very closely so that we partner and share the wealth," she said. "I don't think we necessarily have to have everything here in the city of Atlanta in order for growth to occur. We need to sort of disburse the commerce that wants to come into the state."
These candidates say they want to participate with associations of local-government officials from around the state. And they pledge to draw from their experiences on statewide boards. Ms. Bromell-Tinubu was on the Georgia Board of Education. Ms. Franklin was senior vice president of the Committee for the Olympic Games and is treasurer of the Georgia Democratic Party. Mr. Pitts has been an Atlanta City Councilman for 24 years.
Most observers acknowledge that Atlanta's recent mayors haven't taken the lead in the state. Some have appeared with colleagues from other states or countries more than they have with fellow mayors around Georgia.
"Our political leadership hasn't reached out to the rest of the state the way that it should," said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. "We need more mayoral leadership on a statewide basis. ... The truth is, we are becoming an urban state."
So what would these candidates focus on?
Primarily, they see their first task - and one that would reflect favorably on the state with out-of-state visitors - is improving Atlanta's basic services: filling potholes, fighting crime, cleaning up litter. Tourists and business travelers to nearly any Georgia city include a stop in Atlanta, transportation experts say.
The next job, all three candidates agree, is restoring ethical integrity to the city's government after the scandal-prone Campbell administration.
Naturally, there are differences on how they would go about these tasks. Ms. Franklin and Ms. Bromell-Tinubu want to institute a minimum wage in the city that's about twice the federal level and initiate audits into bloated city operations. Mr. Pitts, the most conservative of the three, would replace all city department heads and favors consolidating Atlanta and Fulton County governments the way Athens, Augusta and Jacksonville did years ago.
Ms. Franklin is the best speaker. Ms. Bromell-Tinubu is the most quiet, and Mr. Pitts admits his speeches are dry. Ms. Franklin has also raised the most money, followed by Mr. Pitts, and Ms. Bromell-Tinubu is a distant third in fund raising.
Whoever wins, though, will become almost as much a mayor, a leading personality, of every corner of the state as Atlanta's mayor. The outcome, most impartial observers say, remains a toss-up.
And that has Georgians everywhere watching the results. Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424 or email@example.com.