By Ian Sherr
MONTGOMERY, AL – Since Bobby Bright was asking for his vote, Roger Gaither thought this would be the perfect opportunity to ask the Democratic congressional candidate what might be the most important question of the campaign.
â€œPeople around here talk about how when you were asked if you support Obama, you raised your hand and said â€˜yes.â€™ Is that true?â€
Gaither, the owner of the Gallery antique shop in Wetumpka, about 20 miles north of here, had recently seen a television ad designed to portray Bright as out of step with Alabamans because of his support for Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
Now, here was the Mayorâ€”campaigning right at Gaitherâ€™s counter.
â€œThey manipulated that clip,â€ Bright said. â€œI originally said I would support whoever won, but then they asked again and I said â€˜yes, I support Barack Obama and John McCain.â€™ But they cut the clip.â€
Politics in Alabama are changing, but for Mayor Bright, they canâ€™t change soon enough. The conservative mayor who is liberal by Montgomeryâ€™s standards is fighting for a congressional seat that has been in Republican hands for 40 years.
Once considered unattainable for a Democrat, the seat being vacated by Republican Terry Everett seems to be within Brightâ€™s reach this year. Thatâ€™s partly because of the economy, partly because of peopleâ€™s disenchantment with President Bush, and partly because of Brightâ€™s support in Montgomeryâ€™s large black community after restoring bus routes that had been discontinued by his predecessor.
Republican Senator Jay love is also vying to replace Everett, and as is often the case with an open congressional seat, the race is highly contentious.
Love, a former Subway sandwich shop owner and two-term State Senator, has relied heavily on his business background to influence his legislative decisionsâ€”such as tax cuts to make healthcare more affordable for small business leaders. In response, Bright points to Montgomeryâ€™s nationally-recognized prescription drug plan for city employees and retirees.
Still, with a constituency that will vote overwhelmingly for Republican Senator John McCain as presidentâ€”there isnâ€™t an official Obama office anywhere in the districtâ€”Mayor Brightâ€™s biggest challenge is the â€œDâ€ next to his name.
And so, his campaign is covering as much ground as it can, starting early and ending late, visiting all 16 counties in Alabamaâ€™s 2nd congressional district in the last 16 days of the race to have the Mayor meet as many people as possible.
â€œIt would be easier socially if we were Republican,â€ Lynnâ€”the mayorâ€™s wife and a retired judgeâ€”explained as she rode in the SUV trailing behind the Mayorâ€™s truck on their way to the next small town. â€œBut he couldnâ€™t do that because of his historyâ€”he defeated a sitting Republican to become mayor of Montgomery.â€
Recent polls commissioned by Democratic groups are showing the Bright-Love race essentially tiedâ€”a success that the Mayorâ€™s staff attribute largely to his conservative values mixed with his inclusive message.
He is hoping to convince voters to split their tickets.
One of those who might is Darrell Westmoreland, who was still undecided after seeing Bright and Love debate at Huntingdon College on Oct. 24.
â€œThereâ€™s a lot of frustration with the parties,â€ the 46 year old lawyer from Montgomery said. â€œI usually always split ticketsâ€”I vote for the person I think is most qualified.â€
Whatâ€™s tough for many voters is that with the exception of issues raised in the negative campaign ads, the candidates essentially agree. They agree on the economy, they agree on defense spending, and they agree on agricultural issues.
In fact, their views are so similar that both of them independently sought promises from their parties that they would be assigned to the same committeesâ€”Armed Services and Agriculture.
â€œI guess thatâ€™s part of the Alabama upbringing, the state is largely conservative,â€ said 31 year old Todd Adams, a student at Huntingdon College who is voting in Montgomery for the first time. â€œItâ€™s going to come down to the letter at the end of their name: R or D.â€
Which is partially why there are so many negative ads in this campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has outspent its Republican counterparts two to one, spending $1.2 million to place ads on behalf of Mayor Brightâ€”attacking Senator Love for his ties to a casino tycoon who is expanding into â€œCommunist China.â€
Mayor Brightâ€™s campaign insists it has not run a single negative ad, conveniently ignoring those produced on its behalf by the DCCC.
â€œRep. (Nancy) Boyda in Kansas said publicly that she wanted the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee out of her race and they did,â€ Love said at the end of a day campaigning at a fall festival in Greenville. â€œBright could have done the same thing.â€
â€œWe knew this was going to be a tough raceâ€”we were prepared for a year long battle,â€ he continued, noting that Rep. Everett wont he previous open-seat race in 1992 by only two percentage points, 49/47. â€œWe knew it would be a competitive primary and we knew the Democrats were going to spend as much as they could. Weâ€™re just gonna keep at it.â€
But the public perception has not gone entirely in Loveâ€™s favor. At a fall festival in the tiny south western town of Opp, Gordon Gilmore made a point of rebuking the state senator about campaign conduct.
â€œThereâ€™s too much mud slinging, and youâ€™ve done most of it,â€ the 72 year old retired paint contractor said.
Senator Love thought for a momentâ€”looking Gilmore in the eye, before loosening his shoulders and putting on a smile. â€œI stand behind what I said, and we can just disagree.â€