ATLANTA -- New York and California have more delegates at stake in Tuesday's primaries, but Georgia may determine if the Democratic presidential contest ends abruptly or lurches on for a few weeks more.
John Edwards, the senator from neighboring North Carolina, is making a determined stand here to keep his campaign in play and slow front-runner John Kerry's sprint to the nomination. Kerry has won 18 of 20 state contests and leads the delegate chase.
The Southern-accented Edwards argues he can best take on President Bush for Democrats in November because he can rally Southern voters. However, of the three Southern states that have voted so far, he has won only in South Carolina, where he was born.
Georgia is the only Southern state that will have a say in the 10-state "Super Tuesday" primaries.
"If Edwards can't win Georgia on Super Tuesday, his candidacy will ring even more hollow than it does now," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"He needs to win Georgia, but he needs to win more than Georgia - a New York or an Ohio. And those states are going to be very difficult," said Emory University political science professor Merle Black.
Both campaigns rushed workers and resources to Georgia after the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary, where Edwards' strong second-place finish appeared to give his campaign a fresh bounce.
Georgia's Democratic leaders are divided. Former Sen. Max Cleland is an outspoken supporter of Kerry and former Gov. Roy Barnes is just as strongly in the Edwards camp.
Among black leaders, Kerry has the support Rep. John Lewis, who co-led the 1965 Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Ala. Edwards got everything but an official endorsement last week from the Rev. Joseph Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Black voters are likely to account for well over 40 percent of the vote in Georgia on Tuesday. In the 2000 presidential primary, black voters cast 48 percent of the Democratic ballots.
The Rev. Tim McDonald, president of Concerned Black Clergy, said black voters will be "fairly split" in the primary but may give Kerry the nod. They like Edwards, he said, but think Kerry may have the better shot against President Bush.
"People want a winner. They want who they think can beat George W. Bush on Nov. 2," he said.
Joe Beasley, regional director of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/Push Coalition, backs Al Sharpton but thinks Kerry is likely to win the black vote in Georgia.
"I would be perfectly happy with either one of them, but my sense of it is Mr. Kerry is going to be the nominee," he said.
William Boone, a political science professor at historically black Clark Atlanta University, said those assessments agree with what he sees.
"I wouldn't like to lay odds, but I would think Kerry may have a heads up. I just think they (voters) are trying to weigh who can win," he said. "I think a good many black voters were turned off by what happened in 2000. So the idea here is to get the one they believe can win."
Two polls last week showed Edwards trailing in Georgia, but one conducted by Zogby International for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggested he was gaining ground in the closing days of the campaign, a pattern seen in earlier primaries.
The newspaper's poll of 395 voters, conducted Monday and Tuesday, showed Kerry leading Edwards 39 percent to 23 percent with 21 percent undecided. But John Zogby, president of the polling firm, said Edwards gained strength over the two days the poll was conducted. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Edwards has devoted more personal time than Kerry to Georgia, working the state more like a gubernatorial campaign than a presidential race in which 10 states are in play.
With his Super Tuesday effort focused only on Georgia, Ohio and upstate New York, Edwards has spent part or all of four of the past 10 days in Georgia, participating in rallies, editorial board meetings and news conferences in Atlanta, Savannah, Columbus and Albany.
For some Edwards supporters, the appeal to back a Southern candidate is a strong one.
"Not only is he not ignoring the South, he's of the South," said Lowery, the former SCLC leader. "He isn't just winking at the South, he's sleeping here. He abides here. He's living here."
Georgia could go either way, said Emory's Black. "I can see how either candidate can win. I think it's going to be close."
Winners of past presidential primaries in Georgia by year since the first was conducted in 1976, and winners of the state's general elections:
Democratic primary: Jimmy Carter, 83.4 percent
Republican primary: Ronald Reagan, 68.3 percent
Carter won the state in November with 66 percent
Democratic primary: Jimmy Carter, 88 percent
Republican primary: Ronald Reagan, 73.2 percent
Carter won the state in November with 55.7 percent
Democratic primary: Walter Mondale, 30.5 percent
Republican primary: Ronald Reagan was unopposed
Reagan won the state in November with 60.2 percent
Democratic primary: Jesse Jackson, 39.8 percent
Republican primary: George Bush, 53.8 percent
Bush won the state in November with 59.7 percent
Democratic primary: Bill Clinton, 57.1 percent
Republican primary: George Bush, 64.3 percent
Clinton won the state in November with 43.4 percent
Democratic primary: Bill Clinton was unopposed
Republican primary: Bob Dole, 40.5 percent
Dole won the state in November with 47 percent
Democratic primary: Al Gore, 83.8 percent
Republican primary: George W. Bush, 66.9 percent
Bush won the state in November with 55 percent.
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