The 12th Congressional District race between incumbent Republican Max Burns and Democrat John Barrow has boiled down to a war of words. Angry words at that.
Angry words over negative campaign ads and Mr. Barrow's turning Mr. Burns' support for a national sales tax into a catch phrase, the "Max Tax," have Mr. Burns crying foul.
While campaigning in Athens, Ga., last week, Mr. Burns said, he ran across a piece of Mr. Barrow's campaign literature implying he was robbing seniors of their right to buy prescription drugs.
"When I saw it, I said, 'You've got to be kidding,'" Mr. Burns said. "It clearly insinuates that Max Burns is a criminal. Now, you can agree or disagree with my votes in the House of Representatives. My votes in the House of Representatives are not a crime. You cannot accuse me of being a criminal with impunity."
By the time he arrived at the Imperial Theatre in Augusta for a political forum Tuesday night, he was boiling. And when a question arose about the prescription drug bill Mr. Barrow has criticized him for supporting, Mr. Burns exploded and demanded an apology.
"My opponent has attacked me brutally," he said. "He has called me a criminal."
"Lighten up, Max," Mr. Barrow said.
The Barrow campaign has continued to pound away on the "Max Tax," although Mr. Burns insists there is no such thing.
It would challenge a Harvard lawyer to explain adequately all the ramifications of the national sales tax proposal sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Linder, R-Ga. Mr. Barrow is a Harvard lawyer. But Mr. Burns is no intellectual slouch. He is a Fulbright scholar who gave up his Georgia Southern professorship for Congress in 2002 after a bitter campaign against Charles Walker Jr.
Mr. Burns won in a district gerrymandered by the then-Democratic-controlled Georgia Legislature to favor a Democrat, thereby becoming the No. 1 target of the Democratic National Committee this year.
Mr. Burns insists that Mr. Barrow is misrepresenting his position on tax reform.
"He wants to pretend and imply that I want to raise taxes," he said. "I'm a conservative Republican. That is exactly opposite of what I want.
"It is ironic. He is the one who would increase the tax burden, and I'm the one who would attempt to reduce it and expand the economy. Yet they have devised this scheme to confuse people and make them think that I, as a representative in Congress, would raise their taxes. It's not going to happen."
Mr. Barrow, meanwhile, insists that Mr. Burns co-sponsored Mr. Linder's House Resolution 25 by signing onto it March 31, 2003.
"It's right there in the Congressional Record," Mr. Barrow said. "This is like somebody adopting a child and then abandoning it. He's not taking responsibility for his record."
Mr. Burns said the sales tax will increase the number of Americans paying taxes from 110 million to 250 million and force illegal immigrants and those in the underground economy to pay taxes.
Mr. Barrow contends it will shift the tax burden from big business and the wealthiest to the lowest-earning 80 percent of Americans.
Both agree the Internal Revenue Service is a mess, but Mr. Barrow says Mr. Burns and "his kind" have been making it worse.
"Ever since he showed up, they have adopted 225 changes in the revenue code that have added 10,000 pages of regulations," he said. "They're making it worse, not better. And you might think they've got this in mind. They're making the existing system so complicated and unfair people can't stand it."
Mr. Burns said the main difference between him and Mr. Barrow is that voters can trust him.
"Mr. Barrow is simply trying to present the illusion of legitimacy," he said. "He's not real. He does not represent issues accurately. I tell people he's a lawyer. I'm a farmer. He's a lawyer. I'm a teacher. He's a lawyer. I've been a businessman. He is not the person to represent health care. He's not the person to grow jobs. We created 10,000 jobs in the 12th District in the last two years while he's driving jobs out of Athens-Clarke County."
Mr. Barrow said people ought to trust but verify.
"All I ask is for folks to look at what he sponsored," he said.
"Look at what he's done, and if they trust that, they're welcome to more of it. But if they want somebody who's on their side, if they want to vote for some positive change, they can look at my record of fighting and working for the people I represent; they know I will be on their side."
Mr. Barrow said the difference between him and Mr. Burns is that Mr. Burns is representing Washington in the district, and he wants to represent the district in Washington.
"I have a long record of independence in local government," he said. "Max has a very long record of voting exactly the way his party leadership votes. He votes 98 percent of the time the way his party leadership does."
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.