A flurry of hand-pumping and smiles descended upon Georgia's gold-domed Capitol this week as candidates for governor, the state legislature, and 11 US Congress spots registered to run.
It's a familiar festivity, a part of each election cycle. But this year the backdrop is much different, and the stakes much higher.
After four years of Republican gains across the South, the region is fast approaching a point where the GOP could replace Democrats as the party of choice - after a century of Democratic dominance. And perhaps the biggest weight that could shift the scales is the Georgia governor's race.
But this kind of transformation will not come easily, as the governor's race here exemplifies. Whether Republicans can take over the role that Democrats have played in the South for decades hangs on a delicate mix of district drawing, candidate competency, and racial balance.
"Republicans are competing much more aggressively in the South than they have been in the past," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "It'll be close, but we're likely to see Republican gains."
Georgia is the keystone in this Republican building campaign because if it elects a Republican governor, there is a good chance that every state but one in the old Confederacy would be led by a Republican. North Carolina would be the only holdout, and Republicans in that state are already jockeying to win the governorship when it's up for grabs in two years.
Governorships are important, not only because they lead the state, but also because they have veto power over the drawing of new districts, they are powerful aids to their party in a presidential election, and they could carry more Republicans on their coattails to state houses.
But winning the governor's seat here is going to be a long, expensive struggle, analysts predict. The election will depend largely on rural and small-town voters, says Mr. Black, because the inner-city, largely black, largely Democratic vote of Atlanta will be canceled out by the suburban, upper-middle class, newly Republican vote of the city's surrounding 12-county area. If a Republican can win over this rural, largely white population, it represents a new constituency for Republicans in the South.
Another factor in the Georgia race is representative of the party struggle across the South as well: the quality of candidates matters more than before. Now that there are two parties fielding candidates, the choices for voters are much wider.
In the Georgia race, it is the weakness of the Republican candidates as much as anything that makes the contest such a toss-up. Top candidates Mike Bowers and Guy Millner each have their problems. Mr. Bowers's campaign is widely seen as over before it's begun because he billed himself as an upholder of morality and then disclosed a lengthy and complicated affair with a coworker. Mr. Millner has the highest poll numbers of any candidate and the money to run, but he has lost two statewide campaigns already. Pollwatchers say voters may see him as unable to win.
The Democrats are fielding four candidates, with no clear front-runner. Analysts say a run-off is likely, which will siphon money and energy away from the eventual Democratic candidate.
"It will be late on election night before we know anything," says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at Georgia State University. "It's going to depend on how libertarians vote, how heavy is the black turnout, and what kind of additional leakage of voters you have out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican."
Beyond the Georgia governor's race, contests in Florida, Texas, and Alabama will also shape the political landscape of the South.
Republican Jeb Bush is seen as a sure bet for Florida's governorship. If he wins, and the Florida legislature holds its Republican majority, that state will become the first in the South since Reconstruction with all three lawmaking bodies led by Republicans.
Alabama is where a Democratic comeback may take place. The other four Republican incumbents - in Tennessee, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas - are expected to win. But Gov. Fob James III has angered the business community with his focus on issues like school prayer. He faces a tough primary, and a well-funded Democratic challenger.