FOR the first time since 1966, Georgia has a real two-party gubernatorial contest - one in which Republicans hope to win an office held by Democrats for well over a century. Georgia, the last state to return to the Union, has been a Democratic stronghold since 1872. In the past 10 years, all of the states bordering Georgia have elected a Republican governor. But while Georgians have supported Republicans for president and put a Republican in the United States Senate and House, they have traditionally elected Democratic governors.
(Mississippi and Georgia are the only two Confederate states that have yet to elect a Republican governor in the post-Reconstruction period.)
With the increasing numbers of people moving into the metropolitan Atlanta area and surrounding counties, the ``good-ol'-boy network'' of conservative Democrats is fading away. The GOP is gaining support and visibility. And the emerging party has more to gain here than perhaps anywhere else in the South.
The Republicans' hopes for ending almost 120 years of Democratic rule in Georgia focus on state House minority leader Johnny Isakson. Mr. Isakson, a real estate executive, comes from a highly populated suburban area that's becoming a Republican stronghold. He's the best financed GOP candidate to date and has a bevy of consultants and media specialists directing his campaign.
Equally important, Isakson, with 14 years' experience in the General Assembly, has strong national support. According to Leslie Goodman, press secretary for the Republican National Committee, the White House sees the South as a priority region in building party strength.
And the Georgia gubernatorial contest is a priority race, particularly since in the 1991 redistricting will add to Georgia's congressional delegation one or possibly two seats from suburban areas where the Republican Party is growing.
Vice President Dan Quayle helped launch Isakson's campaign. President Bush recently made a quick trip to Atlanta to help him raise more than $700,000, most of which is going to television commercials. And last week Mrs. Bush flew to the city to attend an Isakson luncheon that netted $45,000.
But Zell Miller, a Democrat who has served as lieutenant governor for 16 years, is a formidable opponent with wide name recognition and a $6 million war chest. And while the two candidates have very similar positions on major issues, Mr. Miller has an aggressive campaign strategy.
Miller, a former college professor, has focused on something new and different for Georgia - a state lottery. He predicts that a lottery would generate $400 million annually, and he promises that $250 million would go for new education programs, including a kindergarten for four-year-olds and summer enrichment classes.
The lottery issue propelled Miller, one of five Democratic candidates, to a first-place finish in the gubernatorial primary and pulled the state's Democratic factions together.
Some observers feel that the lottery will be Miller's ``winning card'' and pull in a significant number of metro-Atlanta votes that would usually go Republican. And Miller, who was born and raised in a small town in north Georgia, is almost guaranteed the rural vote.
Both gubernatorial hopefuls portray themselves as candidates of change and reform. But Miller has captured the voters' attention with his simple message - a lottery for education; boot camps for first-time drug offenders; and sex education in the schools.
The soft-spoken Isakson, in contrast, delivers a more-complex message focusing on building a new partnership for Georgia and inclusive government. He has not identified himself with one issue.
Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, says that Isakson's major issue is ``it's time to throw the rascals out.'' Other observers note that he has run an ill-conceived campaign and failed to capitalize on the growing anti-incumbent sentiment around the state.
Despite what some perceive as a lackluster effort and weak strategy, Miller's campaign is ``running hard - trying to slim down the erosion of support occurring in the last weeks,'' according to Charles Bullock, a political scientist from the University of Georgia.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Sept. 30 gave Miller a 21-point lead in the race, but Mr. Bullock and other analysts note that the margin is narrowing to a single digit.
With election day nearing, Isakson is becoming more aggressive and stepping up television commercials that focus on Miller's voting record, the state's deficit, and perhaps even more significant, Miller's personal wealth and connection with a state-chartered bank.
If Isakson continues to build on his momentum, he may indeed upset Miller and become the first elected Republican governor in 120 years.