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Posted: December 10, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Chambliss battles for political survival

Runoff Dec. 2

GAINESVILLE - A parade of political heavyweights came to Gainesville Wednesday to stump for U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and former governor and U.S. Sen. Zell Miller spoke at a barbecue luncheon at the Gainesville Civic Center.

Miller, who served with Chambliss in the Senate, called his former colleague’s runoff with Democrat Jim Martin one of the most important in his half century of politics.

"I’ve been coming to political rallies in this civic center for 50 years," Miller said. "But I have never come to one where the outcome was as important as is the outcome of this race that we’re in right now."

Miller is a Democrat but has endorsed Republicans in recent years. He said Chambliss "could well be the last man standing between a far, far left liberal agenda sailing through the Senate."

Republican Saxby Chambliss likes to say he never expected to be at the "epicenter of the political world," but that's exactly where he finds himself as he battles for his political survival in the last big election of 2008.

As the man standing between Democrats and their long-sought 60-seat supermajority in the Senate, Chambliss heads into his Dec. 2 runoff against Democrat Jim Martin carrying the weight of the Republican establishment on his shoulders.

"Let's face it, the world is watching Georgia," said the 65-year-old freshman senator at a rally in north Georgia on the eve of Thanksgiving. "We have the opportunity to make sure (President-elect Barack) Obama doesn't move us far, far to the left."

It's a rallying cry that has been resonating with Georgia's conservatives, fearful of Democratic gains in the Nov. 4 election. Democrats are just two seats shy of the 60 seats needed to block Republican filibusters and Georgia is one of two undecided races that will determine whether they get there.

The Georgia race has drawn national attention as Democrats are within two votes of the 60-vote majority that can cut off debate on issues. A recount also is under way in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race where Republican incumbent Norm Coleman held a 215-vote majority over Democrat Al Franken in unofficial returns from the Nov. 4 election.

Chambliss, who also addressed the crowd, acknowledged the election of President-Elect Barack Obama, and said "I pray for him every day."

The senior senator went on to say that when Obama was right he would support him, but then went through a litany of conservative issues and said if Obama was on the other side he would oppose the new president "every step of the way."

The senator roiled the partisan crowd with the mention of the name of U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. He quoted Frank as saying with a Democratic administration and Congress, including the possible 60-vote majority in the Senate, the first act would be to cut the defense budget by 25 percent.

"As long as Saxby Chambliss is living and breathing and in the United States Senate, that’s going to be done over my dead body," said Chambliss, who serves on the Senate Armed Services committee.

Perdue said he is predicting a win for Chambliss.

"I think people across Georgia understand the significance of having Saxby Chambliss in the U.S. Senate, and I think there is more grass-roots energy in the runoff than I saw in the general election," Perdue said.

A preacher's son, Chambliss attended the University of Georgia, where he and Martin were fraternity brothers. He worked his way through school and was known as affable and athletic. It was in college where he met his future wife, Julianne.

He went on to law school at the University of Tennessee and established a law practice in Moultrie. He worked for a time doing criminal defense work before developing a specialty in agricultural law.

His political career began when he won a seat in the U.S. House in 1994. In 2001, he launched what many thought was a hopeless bid to oust Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a triple amputee wounded in the Vietnam War. A bad knee kept Chambliss out of the Vietnam conflict.

But Chambliss — a virtual unknown statewide — ran a tough campaign against Cleland, unleashing a TV ad that questioned Cleland's commitment to national security that flashed a photo of Osama bin Laden.

The ad infuriated Democrats but Chambliss won the 2002 contest with 53 percent of the vote, helped along by shifting political winds in Georgia. After generations of Democratic control, the state began its swing Republican that year.

In the Senate, Chambliss emerged as a strong opponent of abortion and supporter of gun rights. He is also known as a reliably pro-business vote and was largely in lockstep with the Bush administration.

As a freshman senator, Chambliss rose quickly to become chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He has been the ranking Republican on the panel since the Democrats won control of the Senate in 2006.

Chambliss was also handed the reins of the influential Republican Majority Fund, a political action committee that raises money for GOP candidates. Fundraising trips for the PAC have allowed him to indulge his love for golf. In Golf Digest's April ranking of Washington's top 200 golfers, Chambliss tied for No. 41.

Still, Chambliss has not always endeared himself to conservatives. He drew boos at a 2007 gathering of Georgia Republicans for supporting a compromise immigration package, which critics likened to amnesty. He later withdrew his support for the plan.

And his work championing a bipartisan energy measure was lambasted by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators.

This year he co-authored the five-year $300 billion Farm Bill derided by some for being loaded with giveaways and rich subsidies for wealthy farmers. Chambliss said the bulk of the bill goes to nutrition programs, like food stamps, and noted that individual farmers earning more than $750,000 a year don't qualify for federal aid.

He won the fervent loyalty of Georgia supporters of the "fair tax," a plan that would abolish the IRS and eliminate the income tax in favor of a national sales tax.

Ken Hoagland, a spokesman for fairtax.org, said Chambliss was the first Senate sponsor of the fair tax in the U.S. Senate. "That takes courage," Hoagland said.

Critics of the proposal say it would place a greater tax burden on the poor, but supporters argue it would allow Americans to control how much they pay in taxes by controlling they spend.

Chambliss was considered a safe bet for re-election in heavily Republican Georgia, although the nation's financial meltdown suddenly made the contest surprisingly tight.

His vote for the $700 billion bailout for financial services industry angered some free-market conservatives, even as Chambliss argued that the cash infusion was needed to thaw the credit markets.

Still, he opposes an auto-industry bailout and is skeptical of a Democratic-backed economic stimulus package.

Chambliss won 49.8 percent of the vote in the Nov. 4 general election, falling just short of the 50 percent plus one vote needed to claim a win in the three-way race. Since then, he's opened 10 campaign offices around the state and revved up his grassroots operation.

He's also had a steady parade of Republican stars coming to the state to campaign with him, including GOP presidential candidate John McCain. On Monday, McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will join him on the campaign swing aimed at helping him close the deal.

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Associated Press writer Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this article.

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