ATLANTA – For Sen. Max Cleland, who lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam, past military service is a formidable credential for re-election in a post-Sept. 11 America.
"I think that gives me an insight into what our young men and women are facing when they're committed abroad. I want to make sure that they're properly supported, properly armed and that we win against the terrorists," Cleland said.
But the one-term Georgia Democrat, who's running uncontested in the state's Aug. 20 primary, faces a challenge in the general election from Republicans who are trying to shift the focus from Cleland's military record to his voting record.
"Georgia voted 58 percent for President Bush. And Max Cleland's philosophy is just way to the left of the average Georgian," charged Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bob Irvin.
"People are going to have a real contrast in looking at whether or not to vote for a liberal in Max Cleland, who's going to vote with [Senate Majority Leader] Tom Daschle and [Massachusetts Democratic Sen.] Ted Kennedy, or whether you want to vote for a conservative in Saxby Chambliss, who has voted conservative in my eight years in Congress," said the Republican congressman from the 8th Congressional District that includes Macon and Moultrie, Ga.
Irvin, a state lawmaker, and Chambliss, who has gotten Bush's endorsement, are trying to punch holes through Cleland's image as a conservative southern Democrat, an image that bodes well in a region that has embraced congressional Republicans only in the last decade.
The Cleland camp has countered with television spots, portraying the Democratic senator as reaching across party lines, working closely with Republican leaders, including Bush.
"I've supported the president when he was right. I thought he was right on the tax cut. I supported him when he was right on education reform. And I've supported him in the war on terrorism," Cleland said.
That leaves Republicans in a bit of a pinch. While Chambliss received 59 percent of the vote in his last election, he represents only a portion of the state. And while Cleland earned only 49 percent of the vote in his 1996 election, he is winning broad support for his moderate positions.