By Walter Jones –
ATLANTA – Peach State politicos have a long wish list that presidential candidates can chose from as they try to appeal to Georgians voting in the March 1 primary.
Changing the primary to the first date allowed under Republican National Committee rules has made Georgia’s contest more significant than it’s been since 1992 when it helped Bill Clinton rebuilt momentum that carried him through to victory. And Georgia’s population, donor base and national standing have all mushroomed since then.
Republican operative Eric Tanenblatt says Georgia’s timing could be as critical in the current election cycle.
“Campaigns are about momentum. Early primary wins show momentum. The more attention they pay to Georgia, the more knowledgeable they become of the state. This can only help in the future,” he said. “A critical win at the right time can make a big difference.”
There will be a handful of states also holding their primaries on March 1, but there are likely to be more and bigger states holding theirs March 15 when Republican rules allow winners of each state to capture all of the available convention delegates. That winner-take-all traffic jam makes it vital to have momentum ahead of time.
“If it continues to play out like this, the race is certainly going to come through Georgia and the South, the road to the White House will,” said Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the official empowered to pick the date of Georgia’s primary. “The candidates will have to be aware of what’s going on in Georgia. People are going to be able to ask them about what their ideas are, but I think they’ll also learn about the state.”
This newfound political significance provides the opportunity for candidates to target their positions to appeal to Georgia voters. After all, most observers agree that the national policy to require corn-based ethanol be blended with all gasoline sold in this country was largely based on promises sought by farmers in Iowa, site of the first primary every election cycle.
As Kemp has seen from escorting several presidential candidates during their visits, voters are already speaking up.
As U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., notes, Georgia isn’t a one-industry state like Iowa.
“We’re pretty conservative across the board, but the voters here are as diverse as anywhere else,” he said. “Candidates are going to have to lay it on the line, what their vision for America is, and Georgians will select the candidates of their choice.”
While there are many social conservatives, the fiscal conservatism is deeper and broader, according to a recent poll for Morris News Service and InsiderAdvantage by Opinion Savvy that showed a plurality of likely Republican primary voters were more concerned about government spending and tax policy than social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
State Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert of Athens summed up what a number of politicians said this week when asked.
“I also think most Georgia voters, including me, are very concerned about the federal budget deficit,” he said. “Georgians would like to know where the candidates stand on the issue of a balanced-budget amendment or what steps they would propose to balance the federal budget.”
The voters here who do care about social issues are more likely to want to hear candidates with a conservative answer, notes Kerwin Swint, political science professor at Kennesaw State University.
“I’m sure primary voters will want their presidential candidate to be against Common Core standards (even though corporate/business interests in the General Assembly will disagree),” he said. “…Some voters will want the candidate to take a stand on social issues such as gay marriage, but that’s becoming trickier.”
Beyond those general topics, are some that voters here are more likely to care about than in other parts of the country, acknowledges Jeffrey Dorfman, an economics professor at the University of Georgia.
“My first reaction is Georgians just want the candidate who will make the best president and have no particular, state-specific concerns, but that is probably an answer based more on hope than reality,” he said.
One state-specific concern that came up often in interviews is the continued funding for deepening of the Savannah River’s shipping channel, now that the state has put up its share of the money. Trade policy that keeps that port and the one in Brunswick humming is also important.
Among those exports are farm products, making agricultural policy critical to many voters. Agriculture is the state’s largest economic sector, even if it’s not the only sector. That also makes immigration significant because it is the prime source of workers on farms and food processors as well as in the construction and carpet industries, Dorfman notes.
At the same time, there are many Georgians opposed to relaxing immigration enforcement, according to Swint.
The military is another major factor in this state. It’s a big employer, both at the state’s bases and at contractors like Lockheed-Marietta.
Transportation funding could be an issue now that the legislature’s debate and passage of a gasoline-tax increase has raise awareness of the inadequacy of the Federal Highway Trust Fund.
And jobs are always a high priority for voters.
“We still have places in the state that have unemployment rates above the national average, so the candidates need to be asked: ‘What sort of economic-development ideas do you have that include the creation of jobs for everyday Georgians?'” said Democratic political consultant Tim Alborg.
Not surprisingly, Republicans see the question slightly differently.
“I don’t see the recovery that the Obama administration says has taken place,” said State Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Atlanta.
Whatever the candidates wind up promising, Georgia is certain to benefit in some other ways.
For one, homegrown consultants and volunteers will be onboard with the various campaigns, gaining big-league experience and connections, Kemp says. That will pay off for them as well as the state down the road.
“A few of our folks, I don’t know who it is yet, are going to pick that right horse. That’s going to be good from the state,” he said.
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