RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss will not be seeking a third term in the Senate this year. His decision to bow out has eight other Republicans, including three Congressmen, scrambling for his seat. Democrats, meanwhile, have their hopes pinned on the daughter of a well-known and widely admired former senator. NPR's David Welna traveled to Georgia for this report.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Georgia's gone from a bastion of conservative Democrats to a place where, for the first time since Reconstruction, all statewide offices are now held by Republicans. Still, Merle Black, who teaches Southern politics at Emory University, says going into this Senate race, neither Democrats nor Republicans in Georgia have a majority.
MERLE BLACK: And the issue for the Republicans is whether they can come out united behind a candidate who can put together the different factions of the Republican Party and also appeal to independents. And right now, that's a big open question.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
JOHN PADGETT: I want to welcome you to Adel, Cook County, Georgia.
WELNA: Last weekend in a high school auditorium deep in south Georgia, state GOP chairman John Padgett kicked off the first debate among the Republicans vying for Saxby Chambliss' Senate seat. A nearly all-white crowd of several hundred showed up for the debate, as did seven of the eight GOP contenders. Conservative radio talk show host Martha Zoller moderated; this slew of Republican rivals, she said, have their work cut out for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
MARTHA ZOLLER: And whoever comes out of this primary is going to be bruised, bloodied and broke.
WELNA: The debate largely boiled down to those candidates trying to out-conservative one another. Karen Handel is a former Georgia secretary of state.
KAREN HANDEL: I am a proven conservative, with a track record of actually getting the job done.
WELNA: Not to be outdone was 11-term Congressman Jack Kingston.
REPRESENTATIVE JACK KINGSTON: I'm a consistent conservative with an A plus NRA rating.
WELNA: Fellow congressman Paul Broun one-upped the others.
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL BROUN: I'm the only true conservative with a proven, consistent record of that conservatism.
WELNA: Phil Gingrey, the other member of Congress who's running, skipped the debate for a fundraiser. He's made repealing the Affordable Care Act his campaign's centerpiece; so too has Broun.
BROUN: We've got to get rid of Obamacare. And as the true conservative in this race, I've got the plan to do it.
WELNA: And Kingston, who's considered more moderate than the other two congressmen, chimed in that Obamacare was, quote, "an absolute assault on the American dream".
KINGSTON: That's why I have voted 40 times to repeal it.
WELNA: That's not good enough, though, for Broun, who chides his House colleague in this web ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
BROUN: Jack Kingston wants to keep Obamacare. He voted to fund it, and now he's trying to fix it. I think that's wrong.
WELNA: Kingston has also caught some grief for suggesting last month that low-income children do something in exchange for free school lunches.
(SOUNDBITE OF STATEMENT)
KINGSTON: Why don't you, you know, have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria.
WELNA: That prompted the NBC TV affiliate in Savannah to highlight some of Kingston's own free lunches.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We took the past three years - first, in official business, Kingston and his staff expensed nearly $4,200 in meals for business purposes to his congressional office, paid for by the American taxpayer.
WELNA: Kingston says such criticism just indicates how well he's doing.
KINGSTON: I know dogs don't bark at parked cars.
WELNA: Two days later in Atlanta, 46 year old Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn and the Democrats' likely nominee, is greeting a largely African-American crowd at a Martin Luther King Day march.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MICHELLE NUNN: Thank y'all so much for being here and joining in to remember and to celebrate and to act on behalf of Dr. King.
WELNA: Nunn cannot win without a major turnout by black voters, but she must also woo independents. In an interview, Nunn pointedly notes she's headed the first President Bush's Points of Light Volunteer Service Institute.
NUNN: And certainly I have a great deal of affection and admiration for President Bush, for his family and I think I've demonstrated the capacity to roll up my sleeves, work together with people across the aisle.
WELNA: Still, in the same interview, Nunn sides with President Obama's Affordable Care Act, saying it should move forward. Emory's Black says that's reassuring to Democrats, but it could turn off some crucial independents.
BLACK: And so if Michelle Nunn does take this position of defending the health care issue, boy, you're going to see that in Republican ads all over the state.
WELNA: Meanwhile, Nunn is raising money and traveling the state while Republicans gird for six more debates. David Welna, NPR News.