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Challenging Chambliss

Martin  Luther  King  Jr.  once  famously  declared,  “The  arc  of  the  moral  universe  is  long,  but  it  bends  toward  justice.”  For  Democrats  in  Georgia  this  week,  that  bend  toward  justice  took  a  decidedly  sweet  turn  when  polls  between  freshman  Republican  Sen.  Saxby  Chambliss  and  Democratic  challenger  Jim  Martin  showed  the  two  in  a  virtual  tie.

Swept  into  office  by  stoking  fears  of  terrorism  and  overplaying  issues  of  national  security,  Chambliss  now  faces  being  swept  out  by  underestimating  his  constituents’  real  fears  about  economic  security  in  the  wake  of  the  Wall  Street  meltdown.  His  dirty  campaign  against  Democratic  Sen.  Max  Cleland  in  2002  is  legendary  for  its  underhandedness,  even  by  the  modern-day  standards  of  Karl  Rove’s  Republican  Party.

Chambliss  defeated Vietnam hero Cleland  by accusing him of being weak on national security and morphing his face into that of Osama bin Laden in a television ad. This was disgraceful treatment of someone who surrendered three  limbs in service to his nation, by someone who received five deferments during Vietnam.

Yet  despite  the  great  Democratic  trends  this  year,  dreams of avenging  Cleland  in 2008  appeared unrealistic. Georgia is one of the few states that seemed to be trending Republican. While Democrats racked up nationwide  victories at all levels of government in 2006, the Georgia GOP swept all statewide offices. And presidential polls earlier this year suggested that John McCain was headed to the kind of massive double-digit lead that President Bush enjoyed in 2004 (17 points), despite early Barack Obama campaign organizing efforts.

And former Georgia Rep. Jim Martin,  the  Democratic  nominee  for  Senate, at first glance seemed  an  uneasy fit for an increasingly reddening state — pro-choice, pro-civil liberties, pro-environment, pro-gay rights, pro-labor and pro-affirmative action. Early polling confirmed a solid Chambliss lead, and his day of reckoning seemed distant.

Yet last week’s irrational $700 billion giveaway to Wall Street has infuriated Main Street Americans, and Georgia hasn’t been immune to the fierce, anti-Republican backlash. Obama has narrowed the gap to single digits in the state, and Martin is running even stronger. A  SurveyUSA  poll  last  week had Chambliss ahead just 45-44, despite having led 53-36 on Sept. 16 — a stunning 16-point reversal in two short weeks. Thinking a statistical tie was too good to be true, I commissioned a Research 2000 poll  that came back  with nearly the same  results — Chambliss holding a razor-thin 45-44 advantage. The race is a confirmed dead heat.

Martin’s support comes heavily from African-Americans, according to SurveyUSA; he’s winning them 84-7 percent, as opposed to whites, among whom he loses to the Republican incumbent 63-27. His path to victory requires either boosting black turnout to 30 percent (the poll assumes 25 percent, the 2004 number),  increasing white support to 30 percent,  or a combination of both. The SurveyUSA poll suggests Martin is having some luck with whites — his support increased from 18 percent in the mid-September poll to 27 percent in last week’s effort.

The reasons are obvious.  Not only are voters angry about the bailout bill, but they are blaming Republicans like Chambliss for the mess. The nation’s economic ills are too deep to  be  cured  before Election Day.

With  such  startling  numbers  in  Georgia,  it’s  looking  more  likely  that  a  filibuster-proof  60-plus  majority is no  longer  optimistic  crazy  talk.  Surely  Dr.  King  would  appreciate  the  justice  of  a  red  Southern  state delivering  a  Senate  seat  to  help  the  first  African-American  president  enact  a  progressive  national  agenda.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .