WASHINGTON – For nearly two decades, Georgia Republican Reps. Bob Barr and John Linder have cultivated a place for themselves in national politics -- the former as a passionate defender of the Constitution, the latter as a torch for a new Republican Party.
Today, both are back in Georgia, fighting each other for their political lives.
"It's going to come down to two guys with long records in conservative Republican politics who essentially share the same views on issues, who are going to have to put themselves before voters who will have to make a personal choice on which one they prefer," said Dick Williams, local TV host of The Georgia Gang and writer for the Atlanta Business Journal.
Redistricting is the culprit for the primary runoff. Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes led a process that gave his party the advantage, slicing up both Barr's 7th District and Linder's 11th District. Barr chose to run in the new 7th, which carried 35 percent of Linder's old turf, 17 percent of Barr's, and several counties new to both of them.
Williams said Barr's decision irked the Republican base in Georgia not only because Barr could have easily won the 11th District, but because instead he set up what is being viewed as one of the most anticipated member-versus-member races in 2002.
In this hardcore Republican territory, the winner of this primary is the assured victor on Nov. 5.
"To be honest with you, it takes all the fun out of campaigning," said Barr, who is viewed as the more strident, visible, but ultimately more partisan of the two conservatives. "You never want to run against a colleague and a friend."
Linder, who as a member of the Rules Committee and co-architect of the new Republican movement of 1994, is lesser known nationally and viewed more as a party man and GOP leader who can no longer play the revolutionary. Still, he said he is not backing away from the approach that has worked for him in the past.
"I don't approach it at all differently," to Barr's first congressional race of 10 years ago, Linder said. Linder said that Barr "hurt the party" when he decided to run in the 7th -- a strong Republican seat that guarantees a lifetime of re-elections to the winner -- instead of running in the still Republican but more volatile 11th District.
Between all the lines lies a race in which both men are forced not only to introduce themselves to new voters, but to sell the little differences politically between them as larger than life.
"In speaking to people who have seen both of us, they are appreciative of the fact that I am not afraid to take a position and take a stand," said Barr, who might be best known for his role as an impeachment manager in 1999, but is also a warrior for gun-rights activists and civil libertarians.
"He is one of our heroes," said Phil Kent, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, of which Barr is a former president. "Since his days at the foundation he has been a staunch defender of free enterprise and the Constitution, he has been a national advocate for the defense of the Fourth Amendment."
But the only independent poll done on the race thus far indicates that being a more familiar face of the political right does not make Barr a clear-cut winner. Last week, The Marketing Workshop for Insider Advantage said its survey found Linder leading Barr 41 percent to 31 percent, with 29 percent of voters undecided.
While the poll was taken before Barr let loose a barrage of catchy television ads, Democrats, who curse Barr for his role in President Clinton's impeachment, threaten to play a swing role in a close Aug. 20 primary.
"Ironically, a large turnout in that primary favors Linder because there is no Democratic primary going on in that district. Democrats can vote in the open primary," Williams said. "There is no one else Democrats hate more than Bob Barr. Linder is at least viewed as benign, but Barr is viewed as a lightning rod."
Linder said he gets calls every day from Democrats urging him on, but he certainly does not encourage them to come out to the polls. He said any success he has in the primary would be the result of their differences in style, of which his own resonates better with the conservative, upper middle-class complexion of the new 7th District.
"I'm much more quiet, I don't need to go on TV and get credit for doing my job, I'm more of a floor operator," said Linder, whose pet issues today include abolishing the IRS in favor of a national sales tax and improving the country's water supply.
But Barr said going on television is not to take credit. "If we are not out there in front, visibly moving our agenda forward, it's not going to get done, period," Barr said. "You can't do that sitting in a Capitol Hill hideaway, but apparently that's more important to John."
Despite press accounts recording a growing sense of tension between the two camps, Linder said the race has been relatively amiable.
"It's been nothing but gentlemanly," he said. "No harsh words spoken, nothing implied."