Cock an ear toward downtown Atlanta and listen closely.
That sound you don’t hear is the pitter-patter of Democratic footsteps running away from Bill Clinton.
The former president arrives Thursday evening as the star of a fundraiser for Mike Thurmond, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. The base price of entry is a solid grand —$2,400 if you want a photo with the great man.
Thurmond is running against Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson, the best-funded candidate on the November ballot, and could use the cash.
Clinton’s visit comes a neat month after a similar foray South by President Barack Obama — which prompted weeks of debate over who could afford to be seen with him, and who couldn’t.
Democratic nominee for governor Roy Barnes decided he ought to be seen elsewhere.
Clinton has set off no similar talk of a stampede.
Polling hints at, but does not fully explain the difference between the two men.
Earlier this summer, a national survey by Public Policy Polling of North Carolina indicated that only slightly more voters were turned off by an endorsement from Obama (49 percent) than from Clinton (43 percent).
Race, of course, must be factored in. But a pair of other attributes may be more important, especially in the South. First, there’s accent. Clinton is from around here — and has a history.
Thurmond first met Clinton – then president — in the mid-1990s, while director of the state Department of Family and Children Services. “I was appointed there by [Gov.] Zell Miller to lead welfare reform in Georgia,” Thurmond remembered.
The issue was a cornerstone of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, neatly co-opted by Clinton and signed in 1996. “Democrats in general were not that warm to welfare reform,” Thurmond said. “Georgia was one of the few Democratic states leading the way.”
The fact that Thurmond was African-American probably wasn’t lost on the president, either. The president brought Thurmond to Washington as an expert witness on the need for federal welfare reform – at one point introducing the Georgian to Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair, who in turn hustled Thurmond across the water to chat with members of Parliament on the same topic.
Clinton invited Thurmond to join his administration, Thurmond said. But he decided to run for state labor commissioner instead.
Still, the relationship was there. Thurmond sided with Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary — and stuck with her until the last dog died in the South Dakota primary. At which time Thurmond, a “superdelegate” to the nominating convention, became a loyal fan of Obama.
“I ain’t running from President Obama. I’m not one of those,” said Thurmond, who attended Obama’s August fundraiser in Atlanta for the Democratic National Convention.
But Thurmond admitted there is something different about Clinton that sets him apart, a second attribute. History has judged Clinton a success.
“He’s the best politician of his generation, bar none,” Thurmond said. “Not only does he have charisma and not only can he excite people, but he also has the intellect to transform those ideas into substantive policies and law.
“The last time we had a surplus, the last time we were generating millions of jobs was when President Clinton was in the White House,” the Democratic nominee for Senate said. “That’s just a fact that can’t be argued with.”
Clinton’s tactics appeal to Thurmond even now. “He saw the importance of recreating a more centrist Democratic party,” the labor commissioner said. “Things happen in the middle in politics. Not on the extreme left, not on the extreme right.”
Heath Garrett, a spokesman for Isakson, wondered whether the short notice given for Clinton’s visit — news of the fundraiser became public on Monday — was designed to curb Republican chatter about the former president’s visit.
Nonetheless, Garrett said the differences between Obama and Clinton are so small as to be insignificant.
“The Isakson campaign and the Republican party as a whole welcome any and all Democratic party officials to the state of Georgia to campaign on behalf of Mr. Thurmond or former Gov. Barnes or anybody else,” he said.
Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, didn’t exactly disagree. He said Thurmond’s key to victory will be to keep white Democrats in the fold, and attract the support of white independents.
“There’s some potential Clinton could help on those fronts,” Jensen said. But if the race were closer, Jensen said he would encourage the candidate to keep Clinton away.
Which raises an obvious question: Where will Roy Barnes be tomorrow evening? At a baseball game, watching his grandson, a campaign spokesman said.