MARIETTA, GA. — MARIETTA, Ga. -- The sun had barely risen yesterday when the Cadillacs, Infinitis and Mercedes began to roll into the church parking lot. The residents of suburban Atlanta's "Golden Crescent" were on their way to work, but first they lined up to vote for Newt Gingrich -- and against President Clinton.
Georgia's 6th District is one of America's most entrenched Republican strongholds, a swatch of affluent suburbia marked by Baptist churches, stately homes and a 50-foot chicken that functions as a landmark and kitschy community treasure. As voters went to the polls yesterday in Atlanta's northern suburbs, many said they supported the House speaker's conservative agenda and forgave his confrontational style.
But for a president expected to win re-election despite nagging "character" questions, the conservative Southerners held disapproval, and even disdain. They wondered how so many Americans see any appeal in Clinton.
"Character counts in my family. Why shouldn't it count in who leads our country?" asked Dennie Clark, a 46-year-old account executive from the Sentinel Lake neighborhood of eastern Cobb County. Clark said Clinton lacks conviction and bases his policies on opinion poll results.
Like most voters interviewed at Holy Family Catholic Church -- where Gingrich himself cast his ballot yesterday -- Clark said he voted for Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole.
Ron McNeil, owner of a construction firm and a wholesale tool company, was more direct in his criticism of Clinton.
"He's a liar, a thief and a cheat," said McNeil, another Dole and Gingrich supporter. Referring to questions about Democratic fund raising, he said: "There's a money trail that's going to be stinking."
Pre-election polls showed Dole and Clinton running about even in Georgia, but showed Dole holding a 30-point lead in the 6th District, which is 91 percent white and 20 percent Democratic.
Michael Shields, Gingrich's campaign spokesman, said polls showed the speaker holding a commanding lead over his Democratic challenger, cookie magnate and political novice Michael Coles.
Georgia's 6th District covers parts of five counties, from the commercial strip in Marietta -- where the giant chicken sits atop a Kentucky Fried Chicken -- to the country clubs along the Chattahoochee River. It includes fast-growing bedroom communities that are home to the managers and professionals who came from around the country to fill jobs created by Atlanta's economic boom.
This wave of transplants, inclined to back Republicans who vow to protect the interests of business, forms a conservative bloc with native Georgians who were raised as Dixie Democrats but now find the party of their youth to be too liberal.
Tom Hunt, a 55-year-old retired Bell South executive who is part-owner and president of a software company, is a Georgia native who has voted Democratic, and worries about a growing gulf between society's haves and have-nots. But he now finds the Democrats too far to the left.
"Conservative Democrat is an oxymoron," Hunt said. He also worried that the seemingly endless questions dogging Clinton threaten to distract him during a second term.
"I'm afraid we're about to face the greatest disruption in the process we've seen since Watergate," Hunt said. As for the Gingrich race, he said, "I'd just hate to give up the speaker for a rookie."
Not long after Hunt voted, Gingrich arrived to cast his ballot in the church's basement social hall. The speaker said he was nervous, as always, about his own race. But he dismissed as "inconceivable" any threat to Republican control of the House of Representatives.
McNeil, the construction company owner and Dole supporter, said, "I just hope and pray."
"For a miracle," he said. "We don't need four more years of Clinton."
Pub Date: 11/06/96