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Candidates hope they have 'next big idea '

JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. --- As the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates debated Thursday at the Georgia Press Association's annual convention, many were pushing proposals they hope will propel them into a runoff, if not to outright victory.

Of 14 major-party candidates, only three opted not to attend. And several down-ballot candidates showed up to meet the editors and publishers even though they weren't going to be featured in any debates themselves.

Their appearances are testament to the importance they ascribe to the press, and as the non-political sessions at the convention showed, today's newspapers reach far beyond the numbers of paid subscribers traditionally used to measure scope.

The papers are harnessing the tools of social media -- such as the Athens Banner-Herald 's 12 Facebook pages and the Savannah Morning News' Twitter postings -- that are driving hundreds of thousands of unique visitors to their newspaper sites each month.

In an election year when recession-ravaged campaign donors are closing their wallets, newspaper endorsements can have a larger-than-normal impact in the absence of endless television ads.

So the candidates came to Jekyll Island with their big ideas.

All remember how Zell Miller's campaign promise to create a lottery secured him in the governor's office.

Thurbert Baker specifically referred to it during Thursday's forum, trying to take a little credit for its passage while he was Miller's legislative floor leader.

Baker launched his own big-idea proposal Tuesday. He wants to expand the state-run gambling beyond the lottery to include slot machines that play a version of bingo.

The $2 billion he says it will bring it would fund universal pre-K, mandatory kindergarten and the highest-paid teachers in the country.

"We're going to transform education in this state," he vowed.

Most of his fellow Democrats in the race gave it a thumbs-down.

"This state and its citizens cannot gamble its way out of debt," said Carl Camon.

Front-runner Roy Barnes didn't dismiss it, but worried that it might cannibalize the lottery.

Baker has devoted the most energy and staff time to developing other, specific policy proposals. He issued a new one each week for a month, ranging from nursing to job creation.

On the other hand, Barnes has focused his appeal more on addressing water, education and transportation with traditional Democratic solutions, similar to DuBose Porter.

As the Democratic leader in the state House, Porter naturally relies on proposals already floated during the legislative session by his colleagues.

The one he says would make the biggest splash is shifting the collection of sales taxes from the state Department of Revenue to contractors hired by local governments, with an estimated payoff of $1 billion in added revenue gained from increased compliance.

David Poythress offers the promise to take no pay as governor until he brings the state's unemployment rate down to 7 percent.

Even Republican strategists say privately they wish they had something as politically strong as that.

Among the GOP candidates, the one pushing the biggest lighting-rod issue is certainly Eric Johnson with his plan to offer private-school tuition vouchers.

Mostly the seven chant a mantra of cutting or eliminating certain types of taxes, like corporate-income or property taxes. Nathan Deal, for one, cites as a central tenet of his platform the elimination of the marriage penalty on income taxes.

GOP leader John Oxendine promises to use his executive experience and knowledge of Georgia's government to eliminate agencies to cut spending and duplication, generally rocking some boats.

"I can assure you a lot of people in this room will not agree with everything I do, but one thing I can assure you of is you'll always know where John Oxendine stands," he said in his opening.

Ironically, when pressed for specifics during the forum, he declined, but then Richard Nixon got elected president with his "secret plan to end the war."

Whether Baker's bingo gamble or Johnson's voucher proposal can lift them into a runoff remains to be seen.

It will depend on the money they put behind their ideas in the form of campaign ads in the coming days so that the broader segment of voters can learn about them and what kind of endorsements they spur from the newspaper executives at their convention.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at or (404) 589-8424.)

Web posted on Thursday, June 24, 2010

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