ATLANTA - Like boxers who are each aiming to nab a title belt, Republicans and Democrats are now sparring at the Georgia Capitol for the right to claim the "conservative" banner for their respective parties.
Last week saw both sides of the partisan divide introduce competing versions of legislation on how the state should use tax dollars to support charity work done by religious groups, and a bill requiring women to undergo a 24-hour waiting period before having an abortion.
Other measures relating to topics such as the teaching of evolution and a complete ban on abortions entered into the mix, too, prompting some lawmakers to scrutinize their colleague's legislative strategies.
"Everybody is getting behind the Lord," said Rep. Jeanette Jamieson, D-Toccoa, a self-described "conservative Democrat."
November's elections marked a difficult chapter for Georgia Democrats, who lost control of the House to Republicans for the first time in 134 years while seeing their numbers dwindle even further in the Senate, which first fell under the GOP's control in 2002.
Though many political observers say the popularity of President Bush's re-election campaign helped Republican candidates in Georgia, others say Democrats also were burned at the polls because of the party's internal rift over whether to ban gay marriage.
The GOP seized on the Democrats' split delegation and tried to position itself as the party most in tune with Georgia voters, who went on to approve the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage by nearly a 4-1 margin.
"I believe the people in Georgia finally identified with us as being primarily of their philosophy," Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, said at the beginning of this year's session. "We placed ourselves with the majority of Georgians."
However, many Democrats say they take offense to the suggestion that one party could have a monopoly on faith and values in the political arena.
"I pray before I walk in (the Capitol), and I pray while I am in here," said Rep. Alberta Anderson, D-Waynesboro, a lifelong Baptist. "I have an issue with that, with people saying the Republicans are a party of faith. We all are a people of faith."
BRUISED AND BATTERED from last fall's electoral outcome, Democrats limped into the 2005 session knowing full well the GOP was planning to introduce bills on abortion and a faith-based funding initiative aimed at loosening the restrictions on allowing taxpayer money to flow to churches, synagogues and religious groups that serve the needy.
House Democrats had blocked those two measures in past years.
But instead of merely sitting back, Democrats followed the prior examples of opposition parties throughout history - including Georgia Republicans - and drafted competing legislation that takes the GOP's initiatives and tweaks them a bit.
Mike Digby, a political science professor at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, said such a game plan can help a minority party significantly.
The tactic prevents the dominant party - here the Republicans - from passing legislation and then saying Democrats are against certain proposals relating to faith and conservative values.
"It's a way of showing you care about (those issues), but you've got a somewhat different approach than the other side," Mr. Digby said. "It's campaign protection."
For their part, Democrats have drawn up bills that are very different in nature from the Republican legislation they were designed to compete against.
On the abortion waiting-period bill, the Republican plan requires physicians to provide a woman seeking an abortion with a bundle of information about the medical risks and alternatives to abortion.
The GOP measure requires women to learn about adoption, child-support eligibility, prenatal care plans, fetal pain and the approximate size and weight of the fetus at the time of abortion.
But under the Democratic plan, physicians are only required to give women the option of reviewing materials on adoption and the physiological characteristics of the fetus.
"I don't see anything wrong with offering them that information," said Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, the sponsor of the Democrats' bill. "It's about giving them a choice about whether they want to go through with the procedure or a choice of making an informed decision where they do know what services are available if they want to have the baby."
Republicans went as far last week as to praise the Democrats for bringing forward such bills.
"I am very pleased to see us moving in the direction of more morality and more ethics and more of the things the people sent us up here to do," said Mr. Stephens, the Savannah Republican. "I think we're seeing more and more of the core Democratic followers ... are finally coming up and identifying with us."
REPUBLICANS ARE NOW struggling to deal with the potential for internal conflicts that helped tear at the fabric of the Democratic Party when it was the state's majority political group.
A slew of Republicans have used the first three weeks of the legislation session to introduce bills that even GOP leaders say are too partisan and far right to merit substantive debate.
Among those proposals was a complete ban on abortions floated by Rep. Bobby Franklin, of Marietta.
Mr. Franklin said he hoped the GOP's new majority would encourage Republican leaders to aggressively pursue tougher legislation on such issues as abortion. He said he believed the overwhelmingly success of the GOP in the 2004 elections was a mandate for more conservative legislation.
However, House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, said his leadership team would carefully select the bills they allow to come up for a vote by the full chamber.
"I clearly can't stop people from introducing bills," Mr. Richardson said Friday.
Whether Mr. Richardson's cautious approach will dissuade his fellow GOP members from introducing controversial social bills remains in doubt.
Fellow Republican Jill Chambers, of Atlanta, said she isn't worried that her more conservative GOP brethren will keep pushing for bills that she doesn't always support, such as Mr. Franklin's abortion bill.
Ms. Chambers predicted the party would weather the storm.
"Are we going to agree on 100 percent of the issues of legislation? No." she said. "But at the end of the day, we'll come together and work it out. That's the beauty of compromise. If we all thought alike, we wouldn't need government."
Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 681-1701 or email@example.com.
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