ATLANTA - A shrunken Confederate emblem on the state flag. An aggressive education reform effort that alienated teachers. A rained-soaked day in metro Atlanta and multiple visits from a popular president.
On Tuesday, Georgia voters shocked analysts by ousting Gov. Roy Barnes in favor of challenger Sonny Perdue. A day later, each of those issues was cited as a reason the state will soon have its first Republican leader since Reconstruction.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Barnes talked about the "tough decisions" he had to make - on the flag, on education and on a host of other controversial issues.
"Tonight," state Democratic Party Chairman Calvin Smyre said late Tuesday, "he paid the ultimate price."
Observers say last year's Barnes-backed effort to minimize the Rebel standard on the flag appeared to have a bigger impact than expected.
In rural south Georgia, orchestrated campaigns to tie Mr. Barnes to the flag change were evident. Campaign posters featured the old Georgia flag alongside pictures of the governor and local lawmakers who voted with him on the change.
And Tuesday night's returns from rural Georgia suggest a massive defection from Mr. Barnes.
In 1998, 70 counties - most of them in rural south, central and northeast Georgia - split their ballots, voting for both Mr. Barnes, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell.
On Tuesday, 65 of those counties voted for Mr. Perdue, some of them in overwhelming numbers.
"That flag issue had some life; it clearly did have an impact," said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. "It brought in some additional votes in the governor's race and probably got rid of some legislators."
Late Tuesday, one south Georgia lawmaker, who wished not to be named, compared the flag change to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in which Congress guaranteed equal rights for blacks.
After that vote, many white Southerners ceased viewing the Democrats as defenders of the Southern cause and began voting for Republicans at the national level.
But in Georgia, Democrats were able to cobble together a coalition of urban Democrats with rural voters who still viewed the state party as more conservative than its national counterpart.
The trend had been gradually changing in recent years, and the flag vote could have pushed rural whites over the edge, Mr. Bullock said.
During the campaign, Mr. Perdue said he would support a statewide vote on returning to the old flag, two-thirds of which was covered by the Confederate battle emblem.
But moments after his election seemed certain, he was distancing himself from the issue.
"The only time that issue has come up is when the media has asked me about it," Mr. Perdue said. "It was not part of our campaign at all. We have a state where that was an issue for many people against Gov. Barnes.
"That's their opinion. It's not been part of our campaign."
Aside from the flag change, analysts say a number of issues combined to elect Mr. Perdue. The former state senator acknowledged during the campaign that much of his support came from voters more angry at Mr. Barnes than excited about the Republican's proposals.
Rhetoric from the governor's 2000 education reforms still angered many teachers, who are usually counted on as strong supporters of Democrats.
The Georgia Association of Educators, the 38,000-member state branch of the national teachers union, did not endorse anyone in the race - a perceived slap at Mr. Barnes.
Media reports and Mr. Perdue's campaign also tied the governor to a number of ethical violations by high-profile Democrats and members appointed by Mr. Barnes to state boards.
The Perdue campaign also cast Mr. Barnes as "King Roy," an arrogant, heavy-handed leader who demanded control of virtually every state issue, from education to the flag to transportation to last year's redistricting.
"I don't think there was any one single group (of anti-Barnes voters)," said state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez. "People were fed up with an administration that didn't have the pulse of the people."
Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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