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Georgia could play role in presidential decision

ATLANTA --- Georgia may be a player on the presidential stage once again.

For one thing, this is home to two viable candidates, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.

In the last presidential election, the state also produced two candidates, Libertarian nominee Bob Barr and Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney. Each had served in Congress from Georgia, he a Republican and she a Democrat, before their post-congressional switches.

This year's duo is more visible and mainstream because they're among a dozen or so vying for the GOP nomination. Gingrich, as the speaker of the U.S. House and chief strategist for the Republican House takeover in 1994, is already a figure on the national stage. His regular appearances on Fox News since his resignation from Congress have kept him in the public eye, at least among conservatives.

Cain, who lost the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate to Johnny Isakson in 2004, has spent the years since as a talk-show host on WSB-AM, a station whose signal reaches multiple states at night. The radio gig helped sharpen the former pizza-chain CEO as a speaker, and that frank speaking style is winning him a growing following in early-primary states.

It's possible Georgia Republican voters will have to choose between two favorite sons when the primary rolls around. Its date has not been set.

A single native son almost always wins at home, which discounts the significance of the vote. But if they're both on the ballot, they could split the vote, allowing a third candidate to prevail. That's the kind of scenario that could draw attention to a state that typically gets little from presidential candidates.

The exceptions were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Carter was term limited as governor and decided to run for the White House in the wake of Watergate. He won in 1976 and won the state again in 1980, although he lost nationally. Clinton won in 1992 but lost the state in his otherwise successful re-election.

Georgia played a more significant role in Clinton's first election because of the timing of its primary. After the revelation of the Gennifer Flowers affair and accusations that he dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, Georgia's primary gave him the boost to rebound. Georgia's primary hasn't figured in the ultimate victor since. State leaders are hoping to fix that.

A bill awaiting the governor's signature empowers Secretary of State Brian Kemp to pick the date of the primary in order to adjust to the dates selected by other states. Having the General Assembly set the date in past years allowed other states to move theirs ahead, leaving Georgia's in the middle.

Kemp has to set the date just 60 days ahead of time, which gives him plenty of maneuverability to track what Florida does. If Florida gives in to the Republican National Committee and delays its Jan. 31 primary, Kemp can set Georgia's to coincide. If the RNC looks the other way and allows the Sunshine State to keep its date, Kemp can use the same date, too.

Or he could play chess with South Carolina, another neighboring state that's traditionally held the third major contest in the primary calendar behind Iowa and New Hampshire.

Either way, as a large, early Southern state, Georgia could have a relevant primary once again. By then, the two favorite sons could be looking for some momentum.

A relevant primary forces candidates to respond to regional concerns. Think what promises Georgia voters could extract if its primary mattered.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News. He can be reached at or (404) 589-8424.)

Web posted on Thursday, May 12, 2011

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