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Bill Shipp - Can candidate Cardwell save himself?

The wheels are falling off Dale Cardwell's campaign bandwagon, and the senatorial election is still nearly a year away.

Too bad. Democrat Dale has the makings of an interesting candidate. His main problem: His idealism is torpedoing his pragmatism as he sets out to bring down Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss.

Before he was bitten by the campaign bug, Dale was a first-rate investigative reporter for Cox Television in Atlanta. However, he is so naïve about the ways of Georgia politics that I fear the party wolves and pundits will devour him if he wanders south of the Farmer's Market.

Dale is trying to make do with a meager Internet campaign fueled by a nickels-and-dimes budget. He has dismissed his professional Democratic consultants - Jeff DiSantis and Emil Runge - because they disagreed with the candidate about strategy. More important, Dale ran out of dough.

Now Dale has no hired generals to tell him how to survive the Senate wars.

Even so, no Democratic consultant can outline a possible victory plan for him, for good reason.

Dale needs to run as a Republican. I can't think of an active Georgia Democrat, even one with wads of cash, who would come close to defeating Saxby.

Moreover, Dale is blocked from winning the Democratic nomination by several other Democratic primary candidates, not the least of whom is DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones.

And the state Democratic Party looks like it's about to flatline.

So, Dale, the first move in your new game plan is this:

· Say adios to the Democrats. Join up with the Republicans. Some Georgia Republicans have genuine problems with Saxby's performance in Washington, particularly on the immigration front. You may even find some campaign money among those irked elephants. If you could win the Georgia GOP primary, you're a cinch to win the general election.

· Stop saying you will accept no campaign money from corporate or union PACs. That is plain nuts. Turning your back on dirty PAC money sounds great and moral and ethical except ... how else can you find enough money to run on? The game is stacked on the side of the PACs.

· Quit telling people that your folks were dirt poor and you came from nowhere. That works in some places, but Georgia Republicans don't like that kind of talk. It makes them feel insecure, especially when dark economic clouds gather. Instead of saying you were poor, tell Georgia Republicans about the charity activities at your country club or the new wing they're building on your church in Dunwoody. Take a look at the national scene and learn a lesson: The best conservative presidential candidate is probably former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. However, much of the Georgia Republican hierarchy can not abide Huckabee. He's too blue collar and too redneck. He wouldn't fit in at a Piedmont Driving Club reception. He doesn't look like big money or even new money. Associating with newly rich hicks is OK, Dale, but avoid at all costs hanging around with genuine populists. People will begin to think you really were dirt poor and perhaps even a donkey after all.

· Remember this golden rule of politics: Voters care most about casting ballots against candidates they don't like. So you need to spend more time telling audiences what's wrong with Saxby than saying what's right with Dale.

· When you finally get a little money, hire three or four men with gruff voices to telephone voters and demand they support Saxby. That sounds like a dirty trick, but everybody does it.

If you should win the election, do not fret too much about keeping overblown campaign promises. Republicans from Georgia have found repeatedly that they always come out better when they don't do much. Besides, you don't want to be overexposed in The New York Times or Washington Post. First thing you know, somebody will be trying to investigate you. It's best to keep your head down, and just do as you're told. President Giuliani knows the ropes and he'll never steer you wrong.

Good luck. Follow my game plan and you can't lose. Or at least you may be able to reclaim your TV job. WSB-TV misses you.

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, or e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net.