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Posted: Saturday, March 27th 2004 at 1:15am

Three Republicans battling for spots in Georgia's likely Senate runoff

By The Associated Press

It's sort of a backhanded compliment _ the political equivalent of praising a baseball slugger for hitting the ball to the warning track. But when people tell U.S. Rep. Johnny Isakson he's a great general election candidate, he dismisses the inference that he's a less-than-great candidate in the primaries.

The GOP congressman hoping to succeed Democrat Zell Miller in the U.S. Senate got tagged with this label during the 1996 Senate race by losing a primary runoff to Guy Millner, who used a barrage of television ads to argue Isakson isn't conservative enough for Georgia. Millner then lost to former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland that November.

Georgians won't pick Miller's successor for another eight months, yet Isakson's top Republican foes _ fellow U.S. Rep. Mac Collins and businessman Herman Cain _ may be gearing up for a Millner-like strategy of attack for the July 20 primary.

The difference, Isakson says, is this time he'll have the resources to fight back.

"Any time you lose, if you're a good sport and a good winner, you accept the fact you lost and move on to fight another day," said Isakson, a longtime state lawmaker who won a special election to replace U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich in 1999. "You have to anticipate this is going to be a very spirited primary, a very spirited general election, and that's the way you have to move forward."

Isakson insists he's taking it one race at a time, yet political observers say his biggest roadblock won't be in the primary or general (Democrats have failed to recruit a well-known candidate) but in a likely GOP runoff should he fail to garner more than 50 percent of the primary vote.

"If Isakson is forced into a runoff, then that changes the dynamics of the race," said Merle Black, Emory University political scientist.

His early start and a campaign warchest topping $3 million seem to make Isakson a favorite for one of two runoff spots, leaving Cain and Collins battling for the other. Each is claiming to be the most conservative candidate, hoping to rally their defeated rival's supporters for a head-to-head duel with the apparent front-runner.

"He's a moderate," Collins says of Isakson. "People are just not looking for a moderate, particularly at a time now with the war on terror, the worldwide economy, the assault on the moral values of the country."

The Collins campaign has circulated e-mails attacking several of Isakson's votes, including his support for lifting a ban on abortions at U.S. military bases overseas. Isakson says he would like all abortions to be outlawed except in the cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother, but because abortion is legal, he argues the government shouldn't discriminate against women just because they live on a base.

Collins says Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, is moderate too, but he has declined to elaborate on that until closer to the campaign.

His campaign last week floated a charge that Cain had once supported race-based quotas for college admissions, citing an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article from last August in which Cain said he believed in affirmative action but not "one-size-fits-all applications." The article doesn't say Cain supported quotas, and his campaign insists he never has.

Cain says his conservative credentials are impeccable. For example, he holds the position that, unless a mother's life is threatened, all abortions should be illegal _ even if a woman became pregnant through rape or incest.

"I am a conservative candidate by the classical definition of conservative," said Cain, who was the first to air statewide television and radio ads, and ended the year with more than $1 million _ much of it a personal loan _ in his campaign bank account.

"We are not focusing on talking about what my opponents are. We're focusing on who Herman Cain is," Cain said.

Black said if Cain is able to edge out Collins for a spot in the runoff, he could become a major national story _ a black Republican trying to run as a conservative alternative to his party foe. No black has served in the upper chamber since Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, who ran unsuccessfully for president this year. The only black Republican senator since Reconstruction was Edward Brooke, who represented Massachusetts from 1967 to 1979.

Republican businessman Al Bartell also is running for Miller's seat but lags far behind the others in fund-raising and name recognition. Atlanta-area state Sens. Mary Hodges Squires and Nadine Thomas are seeking the Democratic nomination, but political analysts give them little chance against the eventual Republican nominee.


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