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Monday, September 27, 2010 - 9:17am

GOP Aims To Oust John Barrow

When national Republican Party chief Michael Steele visited Georgia on his "Fire Pelosi" bus tour earlier this month, he stopped in Macon, Albany and Statesboro.

Each city is in the middle of a Congressional District that Republicans hope to switch from blue to red in this year's elections.

But Statesboro and the rest of the 12th district might be a tough switch for the GOP.

The 12th stretches from Augusta to Savannah and includes much of east central Georgia, including Milledgeville and Vidalia.

The incumbent is the three-term Democrat John Barrow.

His challenger is a soft-spoken Republican who's attracted the support of the Tea Party.

At a Tea Party rally on a hot morning in Effingham County, the strains of "God Bless America" are sung as flags wave at a memorial park.

Heather Merritt of Statesboro looks for a shady spot to hear that candidate.

A self-described one-time Hillary Clinton supporter, Merritt says, she never got involved in politics until Congress passed the bank bailout.

"I was very happy in my life, raising my children, going to work," Merritt says. "And so when they blatantly ignored the people, just as they did with Obamacare, that's when I stood up and I said enough is enough."

Merritt is the kind of disaffected voter Republicans are counting on to win back control of the US House in November.

Her vote is now with a Savannah nuclear mechanical engineer who's running on a message of change.

"If you like the way things are going now, vote for the other guy," Ray McKinney, the GOP candidate, tells the crowd.

McKinney talks about taking back Washington.

His message is Republican orthodoxy: low taxes and less government.

And his strategy is to tie John Barrow to Nancy Pelosi and an unpopular Congress.

"John Barrow portrays himself and everybody believes he's a conservative Democrat, which makes some people comfortable," McKinney says. "But the fact is that John Barrow is not a conservative Democrat, except in campaigns."

With a historic wind at his back, McKinney says, Georgia's 12th district could be another example of voters ousting incumbents.

And there is still the memory here of the last mid-term election when John Barrow came within 800 votes of losing.

It was one of the closest races in the House that year.

Still, Tea Party candidates have yet to prove themselves in a general election.

And incumbency still has its perks.

At a recent awards banquet for an African-American historical society, John Barrow mingles in the crowd, introducing himself.

"Hi ladies, how y'all doing?" the candidate says. "John Barrow."

"Like I don't know," comes the response, jokingly. "Shame on you."

In fact, John Barrow doesn't have to introduce himself in many places here.

After six years in office, his name and face are well-known in Savannah, his home and a key voter base in the 12th district.

Barrow says, he feels voter anger, but thinks it's about partisanship in general, not about one party or the other.

"That's the source, I think, of the greatest anger and resentment out there," Barrow says. "And since I've never been guilty of that, I think that anger has very little place to go in my case."

Barrow points to his votes against the health reform law and against bank bailouts as proof that he's not a Pelosi protege.

Political commentator and Savannah College of Art and Design School of Liberal Arts Dean Robert Eisinger says, the betting money would have to be on Barrow.

"Even in other historical times of dissatisfaction, the re-election rate for incumbents is remarkably high," Eisinger says. "It is likely that instead of it being 95% re-election rate or 92% re-election rate, it might be 84% re-election rate of incumbents."

And the money is following Barrow.

The Democrat has far out-raised his GOP opponent.

National groups haven't spent as much in the 12th as they have elsewhere.

And that might say the most about the Republican's chances.