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By Cynthia Tucker

When Barack Obama brought his 50-state-campaign plan to Georgia, a bastion of crimson-state conservatism, Republicans scoffed. They dismissed his TV ads and voter-turnout effort as money misspent in a GOP stronghold.

But just as Georgia Republicans were bragging about their hegemony, something surprising happened. As the economy worsened and John McCain lurched from one intemperate outburst to another, the presidential race tightened even in Georgia. Equally astonishing, a little-known Democratic challenger is threatening the once-safe seat of incumbent GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

Many white Georgia voters remain reflexively Republican, so the state may stay out of Obama’s reach. And Chambliss may well hold off the challenge from Democrat Jim Martin. But the Republican senator deserves to go down in flaming defeat.

Generally, Chambliss has been a reliable lap dog to George W. Bush. Chambliss has voted to keep troops in Iraq. He has voted against expanding a low-cost health insurance program for children. He has opposed broader federal support for stem cell research. He broke with Bush only when he shouldn’t have, supporting farm subsidies, the wasteful welfare program for well-off agricultural interests.

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Chambliss also hasn’t shied from demagoguing when he believed he needed to. Although he initially supported a comprehensive bill on immigration reform, as Bush did, Chambliss backed away when his jingoistic base howled its resentment. No stranger to shameless hypocrisy, Chambliss had been among a handful of Georgia politicians to blast the old Immigration and Naturalization Service for rounding up illegal farmhands during the late 1990s. After Vidalia onion farmers complained that they were losing their cheap labor, Chambliss denounced the INS for “bullying tactics.” These days, he’s more likely to talk about secure borders.

But politics is a strange business, and Chambliss now finds himself on the receiving end of a bit of demagoguery. He supported the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, which was the right thing to do given the dire financial crisis. But Martin has taken a populist tack, harshly criticizing the vote as bailing out greedy hedge fund execs but not struggling homeowners.

If Chambliss is defeated by an advertising assault free of context or fairness, score a win for retributive justice. He won the seat by running one of the most despicable ads in the Republican playbook — no easy thing to do.

McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, have themselves followed the Rovian low road by questioning Obama’s patriotism and linking him to “terrorists.” But even McCain condemned as “reprehensible” a Chambliss ad against Democratic incumbent Max Cleland, a Vietnam War triple amputee, in 2002.

Claiming a bad knee, Chambliss received deferments that kept him out of Vietnam. But his ad, which featured photos of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, implicitly questioned Cleland’s patriotism and explicitly doubted his courage.

“Since July, Max Cleland voted against President Bush’s vital homeland security efforts 11 times!” the voice-over intoned. That completed a remarkable Swiftboating of the truth.

In 2002, President Bush initially resisted calls from several Democrats, including Cleland, to establish a Homeland Security department. When Bush finally relented, he tangled with Democrats over labor rules for department employees. Disagreements about those rules accounted for the votes Chambliss used to paint Cleland as soft on terrorism.

For the record, Martin, who joined ROTC at the University of Georgia, served two years in Vietnam. But he rarely mentions that. He sticks to denouncing what some call “Saxby economics,” hoping that joblessness and home foreclosures and jammed-up credit markets will be his opponent’s undoing.

Still, Martin has taken Cleland and Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), another Vietnam vet, on the campaign trail with him. In this season when Karl Rove’s protégés desperately attempt to revive conjured-up chasms between elites and “real Americans,” between the heartland and the coasts, between conservative warriors and liberal wimps, it doesn’t hurt to remind voters that Democrats love their country, too, and are willing to fight for it.