WASHINGTON – Georgia Republican Rep. Max Burns (search) is not only a Democratic target for termination in 2004, but some analysts say he's their top target, mostly because they think his victory in 2002 was a fluke.
"When it comes to Democratic targets, there is Burns, and then there is everyone else — you could say he is in a tier all to himself, at the top," said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report (search), which publishes a regularly updated tip sheet on the federal races. Right now, Burns is in the "pure toss-up" column, said Gonzales.
Burns is a Republican freshman in the 12th Congressional District, which leans Democratic. Opponents say he won in 2002 largely because the favored Democratic opponent Champ Walker Jr. (search) had an arrest record. Burns won the race by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin.
Burns' supporters, however, warn against underestimating the Republican from Screven County, Ga.
"They're going to have to come with their best candidate and their best guns because it won't be easy to toss out Max Burns," Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., told Foxnews.com. Gingrey was also a freshman in the class of 2002, of which Burns was the GOP president.
"He's been a tremendous colleague and a great asset to the Republican Congress," Gingrey said. "If his opponents think he's a mistake, they are certainly underestimating him."
Burns told Foxnews.com that he has worked doubly hard to traverse — and to connect — the main cities and rural counties of this disparate, oddly drawn 12th district.
The area was drawn in 2001 to favor a Democrat. It begins in the college town of Athens and travels in a thin line downriver through Augusta and then to the historic port city of Savannah.
Political observers say it is difficult to pull together the three cities, each with its own political machine and constituencies, as well as the more conservative rural voters in between. The district runs from the very educated and affluent to the very poor. Its population is over 40 percent African-American, a group that tends to vote Democratic.
Burns said his dream is to create productive links between the outside metro areas of Atlanta and Statesboro with the 12th District cities in order to build upon existing economic and educational resources. For instance, the district has some of Georgia's finest medical centers, and 13 public and private universities and colleges.
"If I look at accomplishments," said Burns, a former Fulbright Scholar (search) and college professor who still lives on his family's beef and timber farm, "I think the biggest thing is the area of supporting transportation projects and education initiatives," as well as aiding Georgia's drought-embattled farmers and pursuing a permanent elimination of the estate tax (search).
Burns helped lead the fight to phase out permanently in 2010 the tax levied after an owner dies on an estate worth more than $1.5 million.
"For a small business, especially a family farm or a minority business owner, there is nothing more important than the permanent elimination of that egregious tax," he said.
But Democrats are already lining up behind what appears to be a three-pronged attack: Burns has done nothing to help the people of the district, he works hand-in-glove with the Bush administration and he doesn't belong in the seat in the first place.
"This election is an opportunity to fix what's broke," said Democratic candidate John Barrow (search), an Athens-Clarke County commissioner who has the endorsement of former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, and has so far raised the most money of an opponent, with nearly $365,000 in the bank as of Dec. 30. Burns had about $624,000 on hand in the same period.
"His record is one of a complete failure," Barrow said of Burns.
Tony Center (search), an attorney from Savannah and Democratic challenger who lost the Democratic primary in 2002, said Burns "has a wonderful personality and is a likable person, but his politics are not in line with the people of this district.
"You couldn't tell what he's done for the district," added Center, who said like the rest of the country, the district is wanting for jobs, and students are looking for affordable higher education.
Democrat Caine Cortellino (search), a 27-year-old lobbyist from Savannah who is also vying for the nomination, said Burns' votes in favor of war in Iraq, tax cuts and the recent Medicare package "were doing a huge disservice to the people of the 12th District."
Another candidate, Doug Haines (search), said Democrats need to be prepared for a nasty campaign against Burns, who he suggested perpetuated the bad press about Walker's arrests, which occurred years before the campaign and were not prosecuted. The charges included shoplifting, disorderly conduct and leaving the scene after hitting a parked car.
"I have a record to fall back on," said Haines, a former state senator. "Any negativity can be rebutted by what I've done for the people of this district."
The primary is set for July 20.
Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign (search), said Burns may be outnumbered by Democrats, but aside from the urban areas of Savannah and Athens, voters here are still pretty conservative, and are likely to look kindly on Burns' record so far.
"He's poised well for another upset," he said. "People are constantly underestimating him and that will be their first mistake."