Originally created 04/14/02

Barnes begins his campaign mode



ATLANTA - With a fairly successful legislative session behind him, Gov. Roy Barnes now can turn to the real task he faces this year - convincing Georgia voters that he deserves a second term.

"When do you go into campaign mode?" he was asked Friday, moments after the final legislative gavels fell.

"About four years ago," he said.

The comment drew laughs, but it was no joke. The Democratic chief executive has raised money steadily since winning office in 1998 and now has about $11 million for re-election.

Preparing for the election cycle, Mr. Barnes appeared to have chosen his legislative agenda cautiously.

There were no bold, swift strokes like the one he engineered in 2001 to change the state flag. There were no attacks on educators, like the ones he mounted in 2000 to help pass his education reform law.

Rather, Mr. Barnes pushed themes that resonated with moderate voters, said Rep. Calvin Smyre, his hand-picked chairman of the state Democratic Party.

He chose issues such as a crackdown on lenders who charge high interest rates, often to the poor and elderly, and a sales tax holiday for two weekends this year.

"They are bread-and-potato issues. John Doe issues," Mr. Smyre said. "Those touch the direct core of some of the constituency out there."

Those are themes "a Democrat could campaign on very comfortably. They all make good campaign issues," said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, said the session merely demonstrated that "Barnes is a spent volcano."

"After a flurry of legislative proposals and reform measures early in his administration," he said, "it's pretty clear he is out of bold ideas and just basically trying to play it safe in an election year."

One administration bill this year was clearly aimed at blunting consumer anger over skyrocketing natural gas bills and chronic billing problems, a development some blamed on the state's 1997 move to deregulate the industry.

As a legislator, Mr. Barnes voted for the bill along with every other member of the House and Senate.

This year, he rejected calls to bring the industry back under state regulation, deciding, instead, on legislation to fine-tune the law by writing into it a consumer bill of rights, placing limits on deposits and late fees, and providing a means for people with bad credit to stay warm in winter.

Can he say that will help fix the problems?

"Yes, I can," Mr. Barnes said. "The General Assembly can't control the marketplace as to the cost of natural gas ... but we can provide protection for those wide swings, and particularly for those that are the most vulnerable - the low income. And we've done that."

Another bill the governor embraced this year crossed party lines to appeal to religious conservative voters who more often vote with Republicans. The measure allows the state to dispense money from federal grants to help faith-based charities provide services to the needy.

Mr. Barnes told a rally of people advocating the proposal, "We're all people of faith, or should be."

So far, Mr. Barnes has no announced Democratic opposition, but three Republicans are seeking the chance to oppose him.