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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

The storm that Nathan Deal has to get right

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021214 snow main BG10

Gov. Nathan Deal was all smiles Wednesday morning as he opned an Emergency Operations Command briefing with praise for how agencies were handling the winter storm that moved into Georgia overnight. Ben Gray, bgray@ajc.com

If ever there was a winter storm that Gov. Nathan Deal had to get right, the one you’re in right now is it.

Yes, those 12-hour commutes two weeks ago were uncomfortable and even dangerous. And the memory of your kid overnighting on the floor of the school gym is still sticky.

But there is no doubt that the hazard posed by a far-from-finished ice storm is more dire. So are the political ramifications of a sheet of ice that stretches from Bremen to Augusta.

Ultimately, Snowjam ’14 was merely about metro Atlanta. The current storm covers the northern half of the state, with I-20 as a rough dividing line. And that’s precisely the footprint of the Republican party in Georgia.

Deal has both Republican primary opposition and a well-financed Democrat, Jason Carter, waiting for him in November. Lose this storm, and GOP control of the state Capitol could be truncated to a dozen years.

“Seventy percent of the Republican primary electorate is located in the Atlanta media market, which is basically everything north of Macon,” said Joel McElhannon, a GOP strategist who was iced into place in Athens. “The main swath of this storm is where you find your biggest concentration of both Republican primary voters and general election voters.

“It’s a huge amount of the total electorate that is being impacted here. So it’s very important that [Deal] gets it right, and I think he is getting it right,” McElhannon said.

And so Wednesday showed us an energized, 71-year-old governor storming the state Capitol and burning up Twitter and Facebook like a teenager.

Nathan Deal on the phone with local officials. “I haven’t talked to everybody yet. I had to leave a few voice mails,” he told reporters. Nathan Deal in conference with his weather squad — his right-hand man from the Snowjam debacle, the director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, present but subdued.

Nathan Deal introducing the National Guard captain and one of his staffers, who drove to Macon to rescue four stranded students at the Georgia Academy for the Blind. “I’m sure it made the families of those children very happy to know their children were going to be escorted home safely,” the governor said.

Nathan Deal closing a session with reporters with a bit of Reaganesque optimism. “We are a resilient state. We are a resilient people. And we will bounce back,” he said. “And life will return to normal as soon as this storm is over with.”

Yes, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made the most of his mulligan, too. By riding with salt trucks and sticking to the details of running a city, rather than fencing with CNN over what could’ve, should’ve been done – and who should have done it.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Reed went to great pains to demonstrate that he prized his city’s people far above his city’s reputation. He cut last-minute public service announcements for the Internet and TV – extended weariness clearly showing on his face. Personal, phoned robo-call warnings to the elderly, who might not use the World Wide Web, were a nice touch.

But Reed has already won his second term. Deal has not.

Weather events such as these become influential political windows precisely because we have nothing to do but sit on the couch, twiddle our thumbs, and pay attention. Television and the Internet become our reality.

Rusty Paul is the new mayor of Sandy Springs, and a reformed Republican strategist who still suffers from occasional lapses.

If there is a political difference between the current storm and the last, Paul said, it’s the fact that – this time — the governor has become its public face. “He’s probably doing some of the things he did last time, but in today’s world it’s not enough just to be active. You have to be seen being active,” Paul said. ”People are engaged politically in real time. If they don’t see things happening, they perceive nothing is happening.”

Inaction, or the perception of inaction, is how storms are lost. “That’s what Kasim and Nathan are doing differently this time. They’re being seen at work,” Paul said. “They know it’s not humanly possible to beat back Mother Nature. But you doggone well better be seen battling her.”

Paul and I closed our conversation just before noon – he had a city to run, and I had a press conference called by the governor. By the time I returned to the desk, an email from the mayor of Sandy Springs had arrived:

“While you and I were talking, [I] got a call from governor’s office asking if GEMA had been in contact and if we needed anything.”

Mother Nature can be a powerful force — particularly in election years.

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