ATLANTA - To hear Saxby Chambliss tell it, good timing had a lot to do with his upset victory over U.S. Sen. Max Cleland.
But Mr. Chambliss and others agree that the popularity of President Bush and the Democratic incumbent's voting record also played a major part in the Republican congressman's win, which helped the GOP regain control of the Senate.
On Wednesday afternoon, with 99.3 percent of Georgia's precincts reporting, Mr. Chambliss had polled 1,064,034 votes to 923,849 for Mr. Cleland and 27,663 for Libertarian Claude "Sandy" Thomas, according to unofficial results.
Those numbers translated into a comfortable victory margin for Mr. Chambliss, 52.8 percent of the vote to 45.8 percent for Mr. Cleland and just 1.4 percent for the Libertarian.
When Mr. Chambliss entered the race 14 months ago, he seemed a long shot to unseat Mr. Cleland - a Vietnam veteran who lost both legs and an arm in a grenade explosion.
After serving as head of the Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter, Mr. Cleland was elected Georgia Secretary of State four times, and then defeated Republican Guy Millner in 1996 for the Senate seat vacated by Democrat Sam Nunn.
Mr. Chambliss, appointed by Mr. Bush last year to lead the House subcommittee on homeland security and terrorism, built momentum by attacking Mr. Cleland's votes on those issues.
"Our campaign really came together two, three, four weeks out," Mr. Chambliss said Wednesday in Atlanta before leaving for Dalton and Augusta, the first stops on a two-day victory tour of the state. "We gained momentum each day and, obviously, peaked on Nov. 5."
Mr. Chambliss said a key point in the race came in the second week of October, when he was endorsed by the state chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"It inoculated me on an issue," he said. "(Cleland) was trying to make an issue of my lack of service in the military."
Homeland security was a major theme in many Senate races. Georgia's other senator, Democrat Zell Miller, said the stand Mr. Cleland and other Senate Democrats took against the President's version of legislation creating a federal department of homeland security hurt the party at the polls.
Although Mr. Miller campaigned actively for his Democratic colleague, Mr. Cleland's position on homeland security helped Mr. Chambliss portray himself as more philosophically in tune with the popular Mr. Miller, a key backer of Mr. Bush's bill.
"The American people do not want politics played when it comes to something that might endanger their lives," Mr. Miller said. "When Democrats refused to give (Bush) what he wanted for four to five weeks, it was just one big, long negative ad against the Democrats."
Georgia Republican Chairman Ralph Reed said Mr. Chambliss also benefited from the party's strategy of tying the state GOP ticket with Mr. Bush, who carried Georgia easily two years ago and continues to enjoy a high popularity rating in the state.
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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