ATLANTA -- When Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia announced that he was quitting the Senate, it looked like the end of an era.
The Republican tide in the South, which had already claimed many formerly Democratic seats in Congress, was poised to sweep away the Nunn seat this fall, analysts said. The Peach State would be without a Democratic senator for the first time in well over a century, they predicted.
But they didn't figure on Max Cleland. At the moment, Cleland, the Democratic nominee, stands a surprisingly good chance of keeping the Georgia seat out of Republican hands. A victory here would boost Democratic chances of regaining control of the Senate.
If he does win, it would not be the first time that Cleland has beaten the odds. Once a strapping, 6-foot-2-inch schoolboy athlete, Cleland lost his right arm and both legs in a Vietnam battlefield accident near Khe Sanh in 1968. A grenade that had apparently fallen from his belt exploded as he reached to pick it up.
Lying in the hospital that year, Cleland endured a nightmare similar to one that Bob Dole had suffered: After being severely wounded in World War II, Dole has said, he feared that he might have to spend the rest of his life selling pencils on the streets of Russell, Kan.
"The only amputee I knew in my hometown of Lithonia [Ga.] was a drunk guy, and his job was basically to hold up the light post," Cleland said in an interview. "He was the town drunk. The town ne'er-do-well. And I thought, 'Oh, God. I don't want to do that.' "
He didn't. After he recovered, Cleland revived a childhood dream. He entered politics, winning election in 1970 as the youngest member of the Georgia state Senate. President Jimmy Carter made him head of the Veterans Administration, and he later served for more than a decade as Georgia's secretary of state.
At age 54, Cleland is one of the most popular politicians in the state, with considerable crossover appeal to Republicans and independents. Quoting retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, "my fellow Vietnam veteran," Cleland says that he's running as a member of the "sensible center a fiscal conservative with a social conscience."
During a recent hand-shaking tour at a fair in heavily Republican Cobb County, an Atlanta suburb, Cleland received friendly greetings from several Republicans who plan to vote a split ticket next month and back him.
"I'm a Republican, but I'm voting for you," gushed Nancy Grant of Kennesaw, who says she's also voting for her local congressman, House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"I just like Max," she explained. "He spoke to our Junior League. He's a good person. He's a good politician."
Cleland's popularity confounds his Republican foe, Guy Millner, a wealthy Atlanta businessman who is spending millions of dollars of his own money on the race.
"Max is a nice person," says Millner, who criticizes the Democrat as being "soft on crime" and "much more liberal" than the average Georgian.
But Millner concedes that most voters view Cleland as a moderate. And indeed, Cleland's positions -- he favors the death penalty, congressional term limits and a balanced budget amendment -- make it hard for the liberal label to stick.
National Republicans say that winning Georgia won't be easy. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters last week that Cleland leads by 14 percentage points in the polls but predicted that the race would tighten.
In three other Southern states where popular Democratic senators are retiring -- Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas -- Republican chances for gains appear better.
It's still too early to know whether Democrats can pick up the three seats they need nationally to take over the Senate; most experts predict that they won't.
"I thought Georgia would go Republican," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University. "But the Republican [Congress'] performance in office has lost them some support. And Clinton has come back in Georgia. He's much more popular than he was a few years ago."
If Cleland wins and Republicans lose the Senate, the Republicans' missed opportunity in Georgia could, in many ways, be the story of the 1996 election.
The contest here reflects several trends playing out in campaigns around the country.
In Georgia and four other states, for example, the most conservative candidates won Republican primaries, leaving them open to Democratic criticism that their positions on such issues as Medicare, abortion and gun control are too extreme for most voters.
"Millner has the same problem that Bob Dole has: He had to travel so hard to the right to win the nomination, he's had a problem finding the sensible center," says Jay Morgan, a former executive director of the Georgia Republican Party, who worked for one of Millner's rivals in the primary but is now helping Cleland.
Another factor across the country is an apparent fading of the anti-incumbent fever that swept many Democrats from office in 1994. Millner himself nearly defeated Democratic Gov. Zell Miller two years ago, and other Republicans unseated two of the state's Democratic congressmen.
Finally, a lack of enthusiasm for Dole is worrying Republican politicians here, as elsewhere. They fear it will depress Republican voter turnout and hurt other GOP candidates. "There needs to be more of a push from Dole," state Rep. Brooks Coleman of suburban Gwinnett County states flatly.
Though voter feelings about Dole and Clinton may affect the Senate contest, neither of the Georgia candidates mentions his party's presidential candidate very much.
Clinton, who narrowly carried Georgia in 1992 and could again this year, nevertheless remains unpopular with many conservative whites, a key swing vote. When Vice President Al Gore came to town Friday -- to raise money for Cleland and others -- Cleland was a no-show at Gore's only public event, a rally in Atlanta.
"I'm going to vote for the ticket," Cleland says. "But I'm going to run my own race, and they're running theirs."
To the frustration of his Republican rival, Cleland is running, in part, on the story of his survival in the face of personal tragedy. In one graphic TV commercial, ostensibly designed to dramatize his centrist message of personal responsibility, Cleland is shown hoisting himself into his car and pulling his wheelchair in after him.
But when a minor Republican candidate in the Senate primary criticized Cleland for playing up "that wheelchair to the nth degree," the attack backfired.
Millner avoids the issue. When asked by an employee at a Ford dealership in Buford, Ga., "What can we do to help you overcome the sympathy vote?" he ducked.
Cleland is free to poke fun at himself. He likes to tell about the time his friend Sen. Bob Kerrey, who also lost a leg in Vietnam, came to town to raise money for the campaign.
Looking over the audience of contributors, Kerrey predicted that Cleland would hold the seat that Nunn and his predecessor, Richard B. Russell, had kept in Democratic hands for 64 years. "Then he said, 'Max will be the only member of the United States Senate authorized to sit around on his rear end all day,' " recalled Cleland, laughing at the memory.
The race for control of the Senate
Unless the presidential race tightens, the closest contest this fall will be the one for control of the Senate, now in Republican hands. A record number of senators -- 14 -- are retiring this year, and the fight for control of the Senate could turn on what happens in these open-seat races. Democrats would need a net gain of at least three seats this fall to gain control.
Republican held ............. Democratic held
State Incumbent ............. State Incumbent
S.D. Larry Pressler ......... Mass. John Kerry
N.H. Bob Smith .............. Minn. Paul Wellstone
Ore. Open (Mark Hatfield*) .. La. Open (Bennett Johnston*)
Colo. Open (Hank Brown*) .... Ark. Open (David Pryor*)
Maine Open (Bill Cohen*) .... Ala. Open (Howell Heflin*)
Kan. Open (Bob Dole+) ....... N.J. Open (Bill Bradley*)
Ky. Mitch McConnell ......... Mont. Max Baucus
N.C. Jesse Helms ............ Ga. (Sam Nunn*)
Wyo. Open (Alan Simpson*) ... Ill. Open (Paul Simon*)
S.C. Strom Thurmond
+ Resigned (Dole's temporary replacement, Sheila Frahm, was defeated in primary)
Current Senate Lineup: 53 Republicans, 47 Democrats.
Pub Date: 10/03/96