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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

Last year’s federal shutdown looms in U.S. Senate race

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U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn speaks to the media after she and her Republican opponent David Perdue participated in a forum sponsored by the Georgia Chamber in Macon on Thursday. Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn speaks to the media after she and her Republican opponent David Perdue participated in a forum sponsored by the Georgia Chamber in Macon on Thursday. Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

What you and your many, many friends thought of last October’s two-week federal government shutdown could determine the outcome of Georgia’s race for the U.S. Senate.

If enough of you thought the face-off was a drastic but legitimate tactic to rid this country of the plague of Obamacare, and to restore fiscal discipline to out-of-control spending, or if you consider such interruptions to be the new normal, Republican David Perdue wins.

On the other hand, if you and your friends remember the closing of federal facilities and the idling of hundreds of thousands of workers (never mind the national parks) as inconvenient or worse, and sweated out its impact on your 401(k), then Democrat Michelle Nunn has a chance.

Aided by national counterparts, both Perdue and Nunn began making their cases this week, nowhere more strongly than at a Thursday meeting of the two candidates at a Georgia Chamber gathering in Macon that numbered 1,100 movers and shakers.

It is an influential group that has always opposed the Affordable Care Act as a damper on business. But more and more, the Chamber has also begun to reflect the business community’s discomfort with impact of these paralyzing showdowns on a still-fragile economy.

U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue speaks to the media after he and his Democratic opponent Michelle Nunn participated in a forum sponsored by the Georgia Chamber in Macon on Thursday. Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue speaks to the media after he and his Democratic opponent Michelle Nunn participated in a forum sponsored by the Georgia Chamber in Macon on Thursday. Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

Which gave both Nunn and Perdue (Libertarian Amanda Swafford was not invited) something to work with.

This was their first time on the same stage, and Nunn was the aggressor throughout – surprising both Perdue and her audience. “Like you, I’ve sat through lots of business meetings and church meetings and PTA meetings, and people don’t always get along. And y’all know that,” she began. “But I’ll tell you, they keep at it. They don’t walk out. They don’t shut down. They keep going, and they solve real problems.”

The reference wasn’t just to Washington dysfunction. In the GOP primary, Perdue was opposed by the U.S. Chamber – separate from, but affiliated with, the Georgia Chamber. Perdue, a former Fortune 500 CEO, told supporters that he had walked out in a fit of temper during an endorsement interview.

Nunn wasn’t mean, but she wasn’t subtle, either.

She hit Perdue again during a discussion of military spending, noting that the 2013 federal shutdown had resulted in the furlough of 4,000 workers at nearby Robins Air Force Base.

Perdue was offered an opportunity to rebut Nunn’s point. “I think that speaks for itself. The situation we had in Washington was over Obamacare,” he said.

Having survived the Republican nomination gauntlet, Perdue has emerged as a disciplined candidate, despite his status as a rookie politician. He responded to none of Nunn’s jibes, and reserved his outrage for President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Then there was the Affordable Care Act.

“I do believe this is unfixable. I don’t think you can repair this. This goes against the very grain of our American heritage. I think we proved back in the ‘80s that a free enterprise society has a leg up over one that has a managed economy,” Perdue said. “This government — no government — has proven that it can manage this big a part of our economy.”

Perdue didn’t speak of the confrontation in Washington that would be required to repeal Obamacare – with Obama still in the White House. Not in front of the Chamber audience.

But two days earlier, at a Cobb County GOP gathering, the candidate thrilled his crowd by raising the prospect of a GOP-controlled U.S. Senate. “We will put forth an agenda that will force this president to either veto, or get in line and let’s move forward. Because the status quo is unacceptable,” he said.

It was something better left unsaid in Macon.

After the hostilities had ended, I spotted two Republicans in the back, chewing over what they had just witnessed. One had a Perdue sticker on his suit lapel, but both were worried.

Their candidate was still using the same language he had used in the Republican primary to motivate his party’s most conservative members. “We’ve had one-party rule for so long, that we’ve forgotten how to run general election campaigns,” one of the pair said.

And wasn’t it unfair for a Democratic candidate to speak of peaceful coexistence and collaboration in such a confrontational manner? they complained.

This is the crux of Georgia’s U.S. Senate race. Since 2002, Republicans have won November simply by showing up. Red meat issues have ruled. Perdue’s debate performance in Macon indicates he thinks the same dynamic will play out in 2014.

It is not a bad bet. The onus remains on Nunn, also a first-time candidate. She is a centrist candidate who, if she is to win, must construct her own political center. Georgia is that polarized.

She began the task in Macon. After her session with Perdue, she met with a scrum of reporters. Her husband, Ron Martin, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Paul Bennecke, chief political consultant for Perdue. Both were very interested in what comes next.

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