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Bill Shipp - Fighting for 60

Just as the fat lady prepared to sing to bring down the curtain on the 2008 election, Georgia became a battleground state - not for the presidency but for unchallenged control of the U.S. Senate.

Democratic challenger Jim Martin could become the 60th Democratic member of the Senate, providing his party with a filibuster-proof upper chamber - if he can unseat GOP incumbent Saxby Chambliss.

In the closing weeks of Georgia's Senate battle, national Democrats and Republicans pumped fresh cash into their respective candidates' races. The TV commercials for both sides turned meaner and ran more frequently. Expensive political circulars stuffed mailboxes.

Most national pundits have picked Georgia as a pink state, meaning it is leaning toward Sen. John McCain on Election Day. That seems reasonable.

However, a battle nearly as desperate as the presidential campaign is in full tilt in the Peach State. The future of the Republican Party as a national force may be at stake.

Suppose Barack Obama wins the presidency as Democrats extend their majority in the House and lock up a 60-vote majority in the Senate. A handful of states electing Democratic senators would do it.

Such a victory would be disastrous to the Grand Old Party. It would signal a complete repudiation of Republican policies for the last eight years. More than that, losing the Senate completely would leave the Republicans virtually powerless for at least four years in Washington. They could become the Whigs of the 21st century, with Libertarians or independents replacing them in the political hierarchy.

Keep in mind: Elections in Georgia are different from those in many other states. The Georgia Senate contest is more than just down and dirty. It is very complicated, thanks to both parties getting cute with election laws to protect their incumbents.

The winner of Tuesday's Senate election will have to win by 50-percent-plus-one-vote to settle the race. Otherwise the top two contenders will battle it out in a runoff four weeks from now.

Democrats once scrapped the runoff (a device to hold black power at bay) after the late Paul Coverdell defeated incumbent Sen. Wyche Fowler in a 1992 runoff. When the GOP took over the Gold Dome, they re-enacted the runoff law, principally to keep minority voters from forming a coalition to win with a plurality. In addition, black voters traditionally do not vote in large numbers in obscure runoff elections.

Aw, the poor elephants, they may have hung themselves on their own petard. This year the Libertarians offered a surprisingly articulate and aggressive Allen Buckley as a candidate for the Senate. Despite a lack of funds to keep up with Chambliss and Martin, Buckley may have impressed enough voters - say, 2 or 3 percent - to throw the Senate contest into a runoff.

Buckley might have done even better with more media attention. However, the race for the Senate has been played out mostly under the public media's radar. If it wasn't for paid commercials distorting the positions of both Republicans and Democrats, many of us would not even know a Senate fight was in progress this year.

In a normal election year, the smart money would go to the Republicans to win a runoff easily. These are not normal times. African Americans already are flooding the early polling places. If Obama wins the presidency, he is certain to weigh in on a Chambliss-Martin runoff to bring out black votes again for Martin. A winning Martin could be the 60th vote for the donkeys. On the other hand, if Chambliss can hang on, he may be hailed as a hero for foiling the other party's hope for attaining full power.

Of course, if Obama loses the election, all bets are off. With McCain headed for the White House, Chambliss, Georgia's freshman senior senator, is certain to become a sophomore, with or without a runoff.

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