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Monday, 4 November, 2002, 02:18 GMT
Bush sings songs of the South
The BBC's Nick Bryant
BBC Washington correspondent Nick Bryant looks at the Republicans' attempts to win back the Senate by taking Georgia.

A huge American flag provides the backdrop, a High School band thumps out the national anthem, and hundreds of pom-pom-waving local supporters happily take on the role of presidential cheerleaders.

The rise of the Republican party in the south has transformed the political geography of America

We could be anywhere - after all, one Bush rally looks much like another - but I can tell we're in the American south because someone has just come up to me and mentioned the civil war.

For anyone who has never stepped foot in America - even for those who have - it is worth remembering that this country fought a bitter civil war mid-way through the last century but one, ostensibly over the issue of slavery, and we're struggling still to figure out quite who won.

Open in new window : US poll results
Click here for a state-by-state guide to seats

The battle over who runs the country, the states or the federal government, has never been truly resolved, and "Dixie" suspicions of the "Yankee North" still run deep.

'Max with Sax' swap

Remarkable though it seems, that alone could cost the sitting Democratic Senator, Max Cleland, a Confederate soldier's hat-full of votes.

President George W Bush (right) lends his support to Republican candidate Saxby Chambliss in Savannah, Georgia
Bush was camaigning vigorously for Chambliss

"We don't like Cleland," one voter told me, "because those liberal New Yorkers and New Englanders tell him what to do".

Among certain sections of the Georgian electorate, that is an act of regional betrayal.

Up until last week, Cleland, a wheelchair-bound veteran who lost three limbs in the service of his country in Vietnam, looked set to retain his seat in the Senate.

But it's a measure of the Republican party's confidence going into Tuesday's elections, that Mr Bush spent so much time here during the final weekend of campaigning.

He wants to replace "Max with Sax" - a courtly-looking Congressman named Saxby Chambliss.

'Singing Dixie'

If the Republicans win Georgia, they will be well on the way to winning back the Senate.

So the president was "Singing Dixie" when he campaigned here over the weekend - giving voice to themes which he knows strike a chord in the South.

There was an attack on those pesky faceless bureaucrats in Washington.

"We understand," he said, "that the people who care more about the children in Georgia are Georgian citizens, not bureaucrats in Washington DC, so we passed power out of Washington, we believe in local control of schools".

There was a call for the Senate to confirm the president's judicial nominees, many of them controversial "Bible-Belt" conservatives who are keen for the federal courts to outlaw abortion.

"Vacancies on the federal benches mean people are denied justice," he said.

"And that's not right. Part of the problem is, there's just too much bickering, too much ugly politics. Part of the problem is, they don't like the nature of the people I'm nominating."

Then there was the promise of permanent tax cuts - raw Republican red meat.

"The thing I like about Saxby and about Phil [Gingrey, a local congressional candidate] is they understand up in Washington we're not spending the government's money. We're not giving you back the government's money - it's the people's money".

Each carefully calibrated line was met with wild applause.

Conquering the south

The rise of the Republican party in the south has been the big political story here of the past 40 years - a seismic shift which has transformed the political geography of America.

Up until the mid-1950s, it was possible to talk of a solid Democratic South - the Republicans, after all, were the party of Abraham "the Great Emancipator" Lincoln.

But the civil rights reforms of the mid-1960s changed all that.

And when Lyndon Johnson secured the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, over the objections of southern Democrats on Capitol Hill, he knew that the GOP would break his party's stranglehold on the states of the Old Confederacy.

So you have to reach back to the 1960s to understand why George W. Bush was marching through Georgia with such confidence on Thursday.

And take a look at Max Cleland's friends in the north, to help explain why he's facing such a tough re-election fight at home.

Campaign diary

Key races




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