Television advertisement candidates would you support for the United States Senate?
A) An experienced congressman who now chairs the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security and Terrorism. The president is said to be fond of him. This South Georgia congressman supports bills to expand the military, help the farmers and ensure aid for the elderly. One other thing: He looks like a senator (or even a president) sent directly from central casting.
B) A close friend of Sen. Zell Miller, he is described as the conscience of the Senate. He helped President Bush enact the tax cut. He is a part of the inner circle of Senate Democratic leaders, yet he votes most of the time with conservatives. He suffers serious disabilities as a result of war wounds he received in Vietnam. He is one of the state's most talented public speakers.
For my money, Candidate B looks like the best bet. Of course, the above descriptions of both Candidate A (Congressman Saxby Chambliss) and Candidate B (incumbent Max Cleland) come straight from their TV spots. Parts of both commercials venture into the land of fiction or near fiction. Still, if you're like an increasing number of Georgians, you get most of your information from TV. So, unless the tones and themes of the TV spots change, Cleland looks like a second-termer.
Chambliss has produced a sterling but boring series of TV ads. As far as I can tell, most of them are true. He depicts himself as an influential lawmaker and a close partner of the administration on security matters. He works hard for military aid, and that is important in a Georgia economy which relies heavily on military payrolls. Last week, Chambliss received tons of "earned" TV when his committee released a report on the 9/11 acts of terrorism. The report concluded that everybody and nobody was responsible. The document was something less than the last word on homeland security.
If Chambliss were a known quantity throughout the state, his TV campaign would serve him just fine. His ads show him as the right stuff in Washington -- the kind of guy who ought to stay there and help Georgia. Trouble is, the TV spots don't sharply define him. He's just another well-barbered candidate running for the Senate.
Cleland, on the other hand, is someone you know. He has run statewide for lieutenant governor, secretary of state and the U.S. Senate. He is a talented motivational talker. He is admired for his ability to overcome serious war wounds and become a productive member of society.
So what if he stretches the truth a bit in his paid TV ads? He's not one of Miller's best buds, as he is portrayed; he did little to help Bush pass the tax cut; he does not cast his most important votes with conservatives; he does not advise the Democratic leadership of the Senate. The TV material about his Georgia background and his military service is accurate. If you put Max's television commercials on a truth-meter, he'd score about 65 points out of a possible 100. Chambliss' would run close to 85 or 90.
In Cleland's case, whether he tells the truth and nothing but the truth is nearly irrelevant. What is important is that Cleland is well-known and mostly well-liked throughout the state. During recent hearings on corporate scandals, he asked some pointed questions concerning the pension losses of many Americans. And he's weighed in on the side of Miller's campaign to help old folks pay for their prescriptions.
But, professional Senate watchers will tell you, during the election off-season, Cleland is not often visible. His constituent services rate barely a C grade (compared to Miller's, which gets an A). And no one in the know considers Cleland the conscience of the Senate.
Still, he leads in the early laps of the election campaign in Georgia. Even with the help of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, Chambliss is fighting just to stay in the race. He must first win a primary against state Rep. Bob Irvin, R-North Fulton. Then Chambliss must find a way to prove he will be a more effective senator than Cleland.
As a congressman, Chambliss has been one of the state's most effective voices in Washington. He demonstrated potential for becoming another Carl Vinson or Phil Landrum -- lawmakers who could get important things done for Georgia and the country. But he may never have a chance to prove he can become another Dick Russell or Sam Nunn. For, despite his talented staff and hefty war chest, it will take a near miracle to propel him past Cleland and into the Senate seat, once occupied by Russell then Nunn. At least that is what many experts believe in the hot, hot summer before the Nov. 5 election.
Bill Shipp is editor of Bill Shipp's Georgia, a weekly newsletter on government and business. Send mail to P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org