WASHINGTON — THREE weeks after his biggest triumph, President-elect Bill Clinton's political prestige once again is on the line in a historic runoff for the United States Senate in Georgia.
Sen. Wyche Fowler, the Democratic incumbent, fell just a few votes short of 50 percent in a three-way race for reelection in Georgia on Nov. 3. Now he is threatened with an upset by Republican challenger Paul Coverdell. The runoff tomorrow is considered a tossup.
Democrats are mustering all available money and manpower, including speeches today by the president-elect in two Georgia cities, to put Senator Fowler over the top, and avoid an embarrassing black eye.
Republicans sense a rare opportunity to regain the political initiative after President Bush's defeat. They are counterattacking with $1 million for advertising and a get-out-the-vote effort, plus help from Barbara Bush and other GOP bigwigs.
Contributions are pouring in for both candidates. "Money is just walking in off the streets," says Kim Greenwood, a member of Mr. Coverdell's staff.
In the closing days, even Hollywood is getting into the act. Actor Charlton Heston, a rock-ribbed Republican, has barnstormed for Coverdell, while actress Kim Basinger is bringing out the crowds for Fowler.
While incumbent senators usually breeze back into office, the portents for Fowler and the Democrats this time are ominous.
Political scientist Charles Bullock, of the University of Georgia, says a powerful anti-incumbent tide is sweeping across the Peach State, with Republicans the main beneficiaries.
In this month's general election, the Georgia GOP raised its count in the US House of Representatives from one congressman to four. In the state legislature, Republicans picked up 17 new House seats, giving them 52 in all, while in the state Senate, their ranks climbed from 11 to 15.
The US Senate race was breathtakingly close. Fowler got a little more than 49 percent to Coverdell's 48 percent. The Libertarian Party candidate, Jim Hudson, pulled in about 3 percent, and essentially forced the game into overtime.
In any other state, Fowler's 49 percent would have been enough. But in Georgia the candidate for the US Senate needs 50 percent to win.
In fact, Dr. Bullock, co-author of the recently published "Runoff Elections in the United States," says this is the first general-election runoff for the Senate in American history.
Tomorrow's outcome will heavily depend on voter turnout. Some 72 percent of Georgia's registered voters cast ballots on Nov. 3, but tomorrow, campaign officials expect that number to plunge to 25 percent or less.
The big question for Fowler: Will black voters show up in large numbers once again, as they did on Nov. 3? If not, he will almost certainly lose.
The big question for Coverdell: Will the Christian Right, which turned out in large numbers on Nov. 3 to oppose a lottery initiative, turn out again? If not, Coverdell's conservative support could wither.
Georgia's Democratic establishment, from Gov. Zell Miller to Sen. Sam Nunn, is working actively for Fowler, and could make the difference.
Yet, Coverdell's campaign team has hurt Fowler by emphasizing his record, particularly his tendency to hew the liberal party line in Congress. Fowler has taken heat, for example, for opposing the Persian Gulf war.
Republicans say Fowler, a white-collar Atlantan, too often has misled Georgians with his folksy, guitar-strumming, joke-telling, good-ol'-boy stump style.
To make the point, Mr. Heston, whose biggest screen role was portraying Moses, likes to step off campaign planes in Georgia carrying two mock stone tablets engraved with the "Top Ten Lies of Wyche Fowler."
Among those "lies," Coverdell, a former state senator and Peace Corps director, charges that Fowler vowed to support a balanced-budget amendment, but votes "repeatedly" against it.
If Republicans win in Georgia, they will hold Democrats to 57 seats in the US Senate - no gain, despite Clinton's capture of the White House.
Winning in Georgia would give Democrats the chance for a slightly expanded 58-to-42 edge, provided they also come out ahead, as expected, in a special Senate election in North Dakota on Dec. 4.