The deep dissatisfaction Georgians feel toward Democrats in Washington is evident in a new poll showing the state GOP closing in on historic gains in November's election.
The poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Georgia Newspaper Partnership shows the Republican candidate holding a slight edge in the race for governor but huge leads in the races for U.S. Senate and lieutenant governor. The poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., has Republican gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal leading Democrat Roy Barnes 45 to 41 percent.
While Deal's lead is within the poll's margin of error, incumbent Repub-lican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle held bigger leads. Isakson is ahead of Democrat Mike Thur-mond, the labor commissioner, 53 to 33 percent, and Cagle leads Democrat Carol Porter, 47 to 28 percent.
If those results are consistent across the statewide ballot, Republicans could sweep to victory in every constitutional office. Democrats currently hold two statewide offices: labor commissioner and attorney general, but Thurmond is running for the Senate and Attorney General Thurbert Baker made an unsuccessful bid for governor.
The poll also reflects a profound distrust of Democrats by Georgia voters. In match-ups of unnamed candidates for Congress and the Legislature, voters show a distinct preference for the Republican. They say they trust Republicans more on major issues and say they plan to vote Republican in greater numbers.
In the poll, Mason-Dixon asked likely voters their opinion about the job performances of President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Congress, and the results were unfavorable for Democrats: Only 36 percent of respondents said they approve of Obama's job performance. But that was laudatory compared with the 17 percent who approved of Congress' performance.
Mason-Dixon managing director Brad Coker said that sentiment toward national Democrats is not staying inside the Beltway around the U.S. capital.
"There looks to be some degree of a bleed-down to the state level," he said.
In the poll, voters were asked whether their feelings toward Obama and the Democratic Congress make them more or less likely to vote for the Democratic candidate in local and state races. Again, the results spell trouble for people such as Barnes, Thurmond and Porter.
Nearly half of all respondents - 47 percent - said their feelings toward national Democrats make them less likely to vote for a Democrat in Georgia.
"The key number here?" Coker said. "Independents. You expect Democrats to say it's not going to affect my vote. It's the people who self-identify as independent, and you have almost half of them saying they won't vote for the Democrat on the state level because of the performance of Democrats in Washington."
There's more bad news in the poll for Democrats in Georgia: More and more independents are now calling themselves Republicans.
When Mason-Dixon polled the state for the AJC and the newspaper partnership in July, just before the party primaries, 37 percent of the respondents called themselves Democrats, 33 percent said they were Republicans and 30 percent answered that they were independents.
Last week, however, those numbers changed: 42 percent said they were Republicans, 34 percent identified themselves as Democrats and 24 percent answered independent.
The problem facing Georgia Democrats has been no secret. Barnes, looking to reclaim his old office, was many counties away when Obama visited Atlanta in August. He has also nearly trademarked a line calling for voters to kick out "the nuts in both parties" and sent some reaching for their history books when he wondered whether the Whigs could make a comeback.
That hasn't stopped Republicans from trying to tie Barnes to Obama. The Republican Governors Association has run television ads and has a website dedicated to pairing the two Democrats together, and Deal has tried to make the connection as well.
They are doing that, Mason-Dixon's Coker said, because it works.
"If you're a ‘D,' you're an Obama supporter," he said. "That is not going to help Democrats at all."
Barnes, however, argues that Georgia voters know better.
"It's more than just separating myself; it is they know me," he said. "They know I'm a Democrat. Yes, I'm a Democrat."
But, he said, he hopes they see him in the mold of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and former Gov. Zell Miller, both conservative Democrats.
But Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said Barnes can try to avoid the comparison to Obama, but it won't matter.
"Democrats in Georgia naturally are demoralized by the failure of the leadership of their party, and those are people Roy Barnes has contributed [to]," Robinson said. "Republican voters by contrast are energized ... and they are going to show up en masse."
Robinson is confident that the national GOP wave will lift Deal, despite revelations last week that Deal and his wife are facing serious financial troubles. The Deals lost an initial $2 million investment and now face a $2.3 million loan after they agreed to invest in a sporting goods store with their daughter and son-in-law. The store went out of business, the daughter and son-in-law filed for bankruptcy and the Deals were left with the loan, which comes due in February.
Those financial difficulties, however, are not a problem for Robert Cooper.
Cooper, 83, of Eatonton, said if anything, "it makes me want to vote for him more. It's irrelevant. How can anyone handle their finances with the Democrats we've got?"
Cooper said he can't find a single positive thing about Obama's time in office.
"He's done everything wrong," he said. "He's spent money recklessly. I don't agree with the health insurance. It's everything."
Jonathan Beall, 30, of Dublin also is very critical of Obama.
"Obama has done a horrible job with carrying out the will of the people that elected him," he said.
Beall, who supports Deal, will also vote for Isakson for Senate, even though he said he doesn't know a great deal about any of the candidates in that race. He said he doesn't want one party to control the White House and Congress.
"Seeing how the Republicans and Democrats keep playing politics up there, I don't want [one of the parties] to be in control and push stuff through that the public is against," he said.
Beall's opinion on control is shared by many Georgians.
The poll found that 67 percent of Georgia voters believe the country is better off when one party controls the White House and the other controls Congress. Only 18 percent said total control by one party is best. (A similar percentage, 62 percent, said split control is best for state government.)
The deepness of that feeling is reflected, too, in voters' responses to questions of who they trust more to handle certain issues. For example, 53 percent said they trust Republicans in Washington to handle the economy; 32 percent who said the Democrats. Fifty-one percent said they trust the GOP on health care; 37 percent said Democrats.
In Georgia, too, voters trust Republicans more to handle the state budget - 55 percent to 33 percent. On education, 45 percent would trust a Republican more, compared with 35 percent who said Democrats.
Cary Rosenthal likewise has negative opinions about Obama and the Democratic Congress. The 70-year-old mediator from Sandy Springs said he would give both failing grades.
Rosenthal will vote for Isakson for U.S. Senate, but he's voting for Barnes for governor.
"I do believe he can hit the ground running," Rosenthal said about Barnes. "Nathan Deal would come in there, it would take him months just to learn how the governor gets to do things."
Rosenthal said he differentiates the problems of national Democrats with what Barnes could offer.
"The state faces its own challenges," he said. "We need a person in the state as governor that can pull us out of the ditch more quickly, and I think Roy Barnes has a better handle on the situation."
Barbara Wilkes of Virginia-Highland, who runs her own advertising and marketing company, will also vote for Isakson. But, she said, she's still unsure about whom to vote for governor.
"I have unfavorable feelings about both candidates," she said.
Wilkes, 59, said she supported former Secretary of State Karen Handel in the Republican primary for governor and will do her research before making a decision.
Tom Bartley, 67, of Dalton has no such hesitation. Like Wilkes, he supported Handel in the primary. Now, he said, "I will be voting for Barnes."
Marcus Powell, 79, of Forest Park, has no such problem. He's for Deal, despite it all.
"I just feel like he'll be a better man than his opponent," Powell said.
Finally, Shari Ellington, of the west Georgia town of Georgetown, said she'll vote for Deal. Her resignation about what that vote means, however, shows the depth of suffering many voters feel with the cratering of the economy.
"I'm hurting in every way possible," she said. "It's hard to find work, a decent place to live. Republicans. Democrats. I don't think any of them will really help people like me."
Jim Healy of The Statesboro Herald and Phillip Ramati of The Telegraph in Macon contributed to this article.