Max Cleland, the former Senator from Georgia who has taken on an active role helping Democrats campaign in that state, expressed concern that there would be a certain amount of "white backlash" to Barack Obama in the South.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Cleland lauded the Illinois Democrat for changing the political landscape in "fundamental" ways, through "massive new registration of voters, many of them African-American." But he warned that there would be "a certain white backlash against that, which... has always been a part of the politics of the South."
"There are [people] who react negatively when it looks like the government or the Democratic Party favors blacks over whites," he explained. But he offered that Obama had offset much of this by recruiting an unprecedented amount of supporters (including many newly registered voters) to his camp.
If anyone knows about the mindset of Southern voters, it is Cleland. The triple-amputee Vietnam veteran famously lost his reelection bid in 2002 under the weight of vicious smear tactics.
Cleland said he saw hints of that style of campaign in John McCain's current run for the presidency. But the fault, he argued, was not with Arizona Republican but rather with the people who surround him.
"Keep in mind, some of those people there are Karl Rovian protégées," he said. "That's what bothers me. I mean, if John McCain were to get rid of that stuff and become the John McCain of 2000 he would have a much better chance."
A widely respected voice on national security, Cleland did chastise McCain individually for one facet of his campaign: the choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. He "knows better," said the Georgia Democrat. He "wanted to go for Lieberman or Ridge as his V.P. -- both of which would have been very credible... [but] they were pro-choice and it was a threat by the right wing nutzos to disrupt the Republican convention that caused McCain to cave in and go with somebody that was -- in Karl Rovian terms -- good for cranking up the base. And it has become a disaster."
But Cleland's main diagnosis for the ills of the Republican ticket was clear. "I am sorry that John is going against the whirlwind that Bush has sown," he said.
Six years ago, Cleland faced a very different Bush whirlwind. During a his reelection bid for Senate, his Republican opponent (at the behest, he says, of the White House) ran ads that put his picture alongside Osama bin Laden. Combined with the governor's decision, that year, to take the Confederate emblem off the state flag, the Bush administration had all the wedge issues it needed to drive up the vote against him.
Flash-forward to today and the dynamics could not be more different. A massive wave of Democratic voters, a presidential campaign that has excited the base, and President Bush's dwindling popularity all have produced what was believed to be unthinkable: an opportunity for Obama to win the state and for Democratic candidate and fellow Vietnam vet Jim Martin to upset Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the man who beat Cleland back in '02. (The polls are very tight in that Senate race, though the consensus among those who have followed that contest is that Chambliss stands a good shot of pulling it out.)
"The fact that Obama is even close in Georgia -- like four points -- is a miracle," said Cleland. "It is unheard of. And who knows what will happen in terms of turnout. It could push him over the top, it could push Martin over the top. We have historic numbers in terms of registration, African-Americans and young people. We have not had that ever in terms of early voting, in terms of absentee voting."
Cleland, who blogged about the Georgia Senate race for the Huffington Post, said that there was no personal satisfaction or vindication he would take out of a Martin win. But he acknowledged that some people in the state have come to see the allegations made against him in 2002 as lies. "There is some regret out there," he said, "that I am not still in the United States Senate."