PERRY, Ga. (AP) — In an arena usually reserved for rodeos and livestock shows, Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn told a boisterous crowd she was "glad to be home."
Her Republican opponent in the Georgia race, David Perdue, stood on the same debate stage and bellowed, "Welcome to Perdue country."
Neither candidate lives near the fairgrounds, much less among cattle or row crops. Nunn is a nonprofit executive who resides in a liberal neighborhood near downtown Atlanta, while Perdue is a wealthy former corporate CEO who lives behind multiple gates on a coastal island.
But both candidates spent their formative years in middle Georgia, and both have made a concerted play for rural and small-town voters despite the state's population shift to cities and suburbs. The same dynamic exists in Senate races in several other Southern states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky and North Carolina — that will help determine which major party controls the Senate after the Nov. 4 election.
For Republicans, six seats from a Senate majority, it's a matter of maximizing their edge outside of cities by capitalizing one more time among white voters who dislike President Barack Obama and Democratic standard-bearers like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. For Democrats, the challenge is making elections about something other than Obama as they again try to reclaim middle-class and poor whites who once anchored President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition.
A Nunn campaign memo lays out the electoral math: To reach her 1.4 million-vote target, she needs about 160,000 more white votes than the 412,000 that Democrat Roy Barnes got for his gubernatorial bid in 2010, the last national midterm election. Ideally, much of the increase would come from suburban women, but Nunn still would need to add support outside metro Atlanta, home to 6 million of the state's 10 million residents.
Republicans acknowledge that Nunn may have a small opening, at least in south Georgia, where her father, former Sen. Sam Nunn, remains popular among erstwhile "Southern Democrats." Rob Collins, director of the national GOP's Senate campaign arm, said Perdue's name ID is low in some rural pockets because he concentrated on metro Atlanta in the primary, while his runoff rival, Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, dominated the south. "He's got to get down there and work on that," Collins said of Perdue.
GOP ads accuse Nunn of being a "rubber stamp" for Obama's "liberal agenda." In Kentucky, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell tells voters that his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, was "handpicked by Barack Obama and Harry Reid." Republicans running against Democratic incumbents Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Kay Hagan in North Carolina all say they're running to demote Reid and hamstring Obama.
Republicans attack the incumbents' 2010 votes for the president's health care overhaul. McConnell says Grimes would play along with Obama's regulation of coal-fired power plants, which he blames for 7,000 lost jobs in Kentucky. Perdue says he wants to serve on the Senate's Agriculture Committee and mocks Nunn's wish for the same appointment as window dressing.
Democrats counter with endorsing a minimum wage boost and portraying Republicans as obstructionist. In Arkansas, Pryor hammers GOP Rep. Tom Cotton for opposing the farm bill. Grimes hits McConnell for his ties to wealthy Republican donors like the billionaire Koch brothers. Hagan criticizes Republican Thom Tillis for using his post as North Carolina's House speaker to adopt budgets she says shortchange public schools. Nunn slams Perdue for leading outsourcing efforts for several American firms, then boasting during the campaign that he's "proud of it."
Still, many citizens and political observers say, winning outside of cities is as much about cultural identity and imagery as it is any particular policy — a political reality demonstrated in everything from Grimes shooting a gun in one of her ads to Perdue donning blue jeans and boots for many campaign stops.
"It's not a matter of disliking or distrusting Alison," explained Bobby Clue, who runs the Chamber of Commerce in Pulaski, Kentucky. "There's just not much for people to identify with when they think about President Obama or Harry Reid. We revolve our lives around church and schools and our civic clubs. It's just a different speed here."
In rural northeast Georgia, White County Republican Treasurer Roy Johnson said, "Abortion, gay marriage, those are big issues here, but it's not just one thing. The Democrat Party just moved away from us."
That Nunn memo predicted GOP attacks alleging she's "too liberal for Georgia." As a counter, her consultants recommended recruiting farmers and gun owners as "validators" that would help "create messaging about Michelle Nunn's moderate bona fides." Like Perdue, she's run ads showing her in rural landscapes. She sometimes campaigns with her father, who retired in 1997, and talks of the farm the family still owns.
Republicans bet it won't be enough in the end. Georgia, said Collins, the Senate GOP's campaign chief, "wants to vote Republican. It has voted Republican. It's just a question of getting Perdue's narrative out there" and convincing rural voters that "this is a different Nunn. This is a liberal Nunn."
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.
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