The Magazine

THE RACE TO REPLACE NEWT

Feb 15, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 21 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Cobb County, Ga.


JOHNNY ISAKSON REMEMBERS the Republican revolution like it was four years ago. Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, and then . . . What happened next? Isakson, a longtime state senator from Georgia's Sixth District who will almost certainly replace Gingrich in Congress, seems as good a person as any to ask. He is clearly uncomfortable with the question. Isakson surveys the suburban Atlanta traffic through the windshield of his Chevy truck, fiddles with the air conditioning knobs on the dashboard. "What really carried the day in '94 was the Contract With America," he says. "After that there was a loss of focus." In retrospect, Isakson says, Republicans really "should have danced with the one that brung them." The Contract With America, meanwhile, could have used "a second chapter."


Interesting ideas, except, as it turns out, they're not ideas. Pressed to explain what he means, Isakson offers no hint of what the Contract's next chapter might have contained, or of who, specifically, the Republicans should have danced with. Instead, he trails off into silence. "Maybe," he says, finally, "there should have been a little bit more emphasis on the governing side."


If Isakson seems hazy on what became of the fire-breathing 104th Congress, it may be because he can hardly imagine that such a Congress once existed. The belligerence, the grandiose promises, and ideological fervor of the young Republican majority -- it all seems so early '90s, so partisan. Johnny Isakson, by contrast, is very much a Republican of the new millennium, a self-described "compassionate conservative" for whom bipartisan compromise and poll-tested buzzwords are instinctive. Isakson would have been out of step as a freshman in the 104th Congress. He's likely to be a hit in the 106th.


Newt Gingrich himself appears to think so. Days after announcing his plans to retire, Gingrich publicly threw his support behind Isakson. A number of well-known Georgia political figures followed suit, including retired Democratic governor Zell Miller and former Gingrich opponent Michael Coles. By the time the luminaries finished endorsing him, the only Democrat who bothered to enter the race against Isakson was Gary "Bats" Pelphrey, a perennial candidate who is widely believed to merit his nickname. From the beginning, Isakson has looked like the inevitable winner. Still, he has taken no chances. An affluent real estate executive, Isakson has hired an expensive pollster and media consultants from Washington, and raised more than $ 1 million. By early February, Isakson's campaign was spending $ 120,000 a week on television advertising alone.


While far ahead of its opponents in the polls, the campaign is probably wise to keep spending. Isakson has unusually energetic enemies, beginning with the district's politically active anti-abortion groups. During the 1996 Senate primary, Isakson received a great deal of publicity for running a commercial trumpeting his pro-choice views. In the spot, which featured his wife and teenage daughter, Isakson accused the other Republicans in the race of seeking "to make criminals of women and their doctors" by banning abortion. While the ad was popular with some suburban women (reportedly including Gingrich's wife, Marianne), it enraged many evangelicals. It also contributed to Isakson's reputation as a politician willing to do anything to get elected. "He used his daughter as a prop to promote abortion," says Tom Perdue, who managed the campaign of Isakson's main opponent in the primary, Guy Millner. "Who would do that to their child?"


And the ad, says Perdue, is the least of Isakson's sins. Perdue, easily the state's most seasoned and powerful political consultant, has known Isakson for more than 20 years. His verdict: "Johnny is a total, absolute phony, an utter hypocrite," "a thoroughly cowardly human being" who "has done more to hurt the Republican party in Georgia than any other person. You can't trust him. He is a liar. His word is worthless." For the last four years, Perdue says, Isakson "has been doing anything to hold high office. Maybe he will get it this time. But for anybody who cares about the future of this country, it's a shame."


Isakson responds to attacks from evangelicals by pointing to his long record as a Sunday school teacher. "I'm a very religious guy," he says heatedly. "I believe in my church, the Methodist Church." Isakson may swing fellow Methodists with this defense, but many conservatives in the district remain convinced that his candidacy represents a sellout of the Republican party from within. For these voters, Christina Jeffrey is the obvious choice.