AUGUSTA, Ga. – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin urged Georgia voters to back Sen. Saxby Chambliss in Tuesday's runoff in an election eve appeal that underscored her popularity within the Republican Party and the GOP's efforts to stave off erosion of its shrinking Senate numbers.
"Losing an election doesn't mean we have lost our way," the former vice presidential candidate told a cheering crowd of 2,500 on Monday in the central Georgia town of Perry. "If we are to lead again, we have lots of hard work ahead of us. Let it begin here tomorrow in Georgia."
Democrat Jim Martin staged a flurry of campaign rallies around the state, capping the day with a raucous event at the state Capitol with hip-hop stars T.I., Young Jeezy and Ludacris urging voters to return to the polls.
"We won the battle," said Young Jeezy, referring to President-elect Barack Obama's victory. "Now it's time we win the war. Vote Jim Martin."
Palin's campaign appearances for Chambliss — four total — were her first since she and Republican presidential nominee John McCain stumbled on Nov. 4. Georgia Republicans clearly were looking ahead, with supporters waiting in the cold for more than an hour to attend the rallies. Vendors in Augusta sold bright pink "Palin 2012" T-shirts and "Palin for President: You Go Girl" buttons. Chants of "Sa-rah!" greeted Palin.
Palin highlighted Chambliss' conservative record of supporting gun rights and opposing abortion. Faced with the prospect of Democrats padding their Senate numbers — they are two votes shy of the 60 needed to thwart Republican filibusters — Palin said it was critical to elect the first-term Republican lawmaker.
"We must send Saxby back to the United States Senate," Palin told the crowd in Augusta.
In the general election, Chambliss fell short of crossing the 50 percent threshold in a three-way race against Martin and a Libertarian candidate, Allen Buckley, who drew 3.4 percent of the vote. The runoff between Chambliss and Martin will help determine the balance of power in Washington. Georgia is one of two undecided contests, with a recount under way in Minnesota in the tight race between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.
All signs from early voting for the runoff pointed toward Chambliss holding the seat.
The contest has attracted almost 500,000 early voters and some 36 percent are white males, typically a solid Republican constituency in the state. In the weeks leading up to the general election, white males cast about 27 percent of the more than 2 million early votes.
Less than 23 percent of the early voters for the runoff are black — a drop from the surge of black voters in the run-up to the general election. Black voters made up more than 34 percent of the 2 million early voters before the Nov. 4 contest when President-elect Barack Obama was on the ballot.
Palin cast the Georgia runoff as the first step in rehabilitating the Republican Party, wounded by losses in November including the defeat of the McCain-Palin ticket.
"It takes rebuilding and I say let that begin here in Georgia tomorrow," Palin said.
In Alaska, Democratic Party chairwoman Patti Higgins criticized Palin for campaigning in Georgia with problems looming at home, including gas prices that are nearly $1 more per gallon than the national average and the falling price of crude oil, which drives the state budget.
"It's one thing to run the state from a Blackberry when you're just troubleshooting and helping solve some problems, but where is she sitting down with her staff, being proactive and trying to solve some problems that are on the horizon?" Higgins said. "I don't see that."
Martin supporters didn't waste the chance to take shots of their own at Palin.
"Anybody that would bring Sarah Palin to Georgia needs to be sent back to wherever they came from," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who was at the rally. "McCain blew it with Sarah Palin and now Mr. Saxby is doing the same thing."
The image of Martin flanked by the rappers made for an awkward scene, particularly as hundreds of screaming fans scrambled to take a picture of the stars on their cell phones, and rushed to the Capitol lawn to catch a glimpse of them.
Martin, a bespectacled 63-year-old in a crisp gray suit, seemed to take it all in stride. "I'm not a hip-hop star," he said to laughs. "I know why y'all came."
He used his brief speech to implore them to return to the polls Tuesday, contending that he would help Obama push his lofty agenda through the Senate while Chambliss would work to obstruct it.