WITH just five days left before a runoff election, the race for Atlanta mayor, heretofore polite to the point of being dull, is finally heating up.
The acrimony over alleged ethics lapses connected to the running of Atlanta's major airport comes as something of a surprise, since the two contenders, Michael Lomax and Bill Campbell, offer backgrounds and messages that are eerily similar.
In the eyes of many here, they are both consummate Buppies (Black Urban Professionals) and part of a second generation of African-American leaders. Unlike such previous mayors as Andrew Young, they are less concerned with promoting black power than with running the day-to-day operations of a city with a dwindling tax base and crumbling infrastructure.
Messrs. Lomax and Campbell are both veteran politicians who cast themselves as problem-solvers. As Atlanta prepares to host the 1996 Olympic Games, they have focused on reducing crime, improving the schools and public housing, and making the city work better.
Although (or perhaps because) they agree on the issues, the candidates have been pummeling each other over the running of Hartsfield International Airport, the focus of a two-year federal investigation into fraud and corruption.
Lomax, calling the airport a ``pork barrel,'' wants to create an independent commission of citizens to run the facility. Campbell wants to keep the airport - the fourth largest in the country and Georgia's biggest employer - under the control of the City Council but maintain closer scrutiny of operations.
In what Campbell calls ``a desperate move to prop up his faltering campaign,'' Lomax has spotlighted his opponent's possible role in the corruption trial of former Atlanta Councilman Ira Jackson. Lomax charges that the trial will show that Campbell, a longtime member of the City Council, may have used his influence to help clients get contracts at the airport. To counter the charges, Campbell voluntarily took - and passed - a polygraph test on Tuesday.
Mr. Jackson's trial was originally scheduled to start this week, but it was postponed until January after defense lawyers argued that some evidence might be damaging to the mayoral candidates.
Both Lomax and Campbell have called for full disclosure of all the facts in the case, but it is clearly Lomax, the underdog, who is hurt the most by the judge's decision.
``It's very unfair for the district judge to say that the trial might have an impact on the election and then not disclose the evidence,'' says Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a Lomax supporter. ``It casts a shadow of suspicion over both candidates.''
Unless there are further revelations in the airport scandal, the election appears to be Campbell's to lose. In the Nov. 2 general election, he bested a field of 12 contenders, coming within 900 votes of getting a majority and avoiding a runoff. Lomax, the runner-up, finished with just 23 percent of the vote.
Since then, Campbell has run a high-powered campaign featuring a barrage of 30-second TV commercials touting his proposals for community policing and attacking Lomax for his alleged history of negative campaigning. Confident but frazzled as the campaign winds down, Campbell tells voters, ``Atlanta is looking for change - a new direction and new ideas. We've worked very hard to get our message out to the people of Atlanta.''
Lomax, a former college professor and the first black chairman of the Fulton County Commission, has also stepped up his campaign pace during the stretch run. ``We're working the entire city - pressing doorbells and shaking hands, canvassing neighborhood groups, going to churches and major events,'' he says.
Lomax's strongest support in the general election came in two predominantly white areas in Atlanta's affluent Northside. But in the Nov. 23 runoff, his chance of success may depend on turnout among black churchgoers.
``If the churches turn out the vote for Lomax, it could turn the election around,'' says Joe Beasley, the Southern director of the Rainbow Coalition.
Still, political analysts say it will be difficult for Lomax to overcome Campbell's wide lead and to shake his image as a tax-and-spend politician. ``Campbell has run a well-organized, well-financed campaign from the beginning. Lomax entered the race late and is trying to do in a few weeks what Campbell did in six months,'' says former Mayor Sam Massell.