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Race presents interesting matchups

If you hadn’t figured it out a year ago – which most had – the four legitimate candidates for governor in Alabama have “officially” begun their campaigns. Sure, you can expect one or two uninspired candidates to join the fracas (they always do), but we’ll probably give them as much attention as the rest of the statewide media.

Incumbent Gov. Bob Riley will face ex-Chief Justice Roy Moore in a Republican revival over which of the two has attended more church services in the past four years. (That’s somewhat – though not entirely – flippant.) Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley and former Gov. Don Siegelman will battle in a Democrat primary that could look more like a middle-school shouting match by June 2006.

For the next four weeks, we’ll look at how each candidate can win his or her primary, and how each candidate can lose. We’ll start this week with the incumbent, Riley.

Bob Riley surprised most of the state when he defeated Siegelman in 2002. For starters, no one outside of Ashland knew him. Secondly, Siegelman had just lured another car manufacturer, Hyundai, to the state.

Riley followed the script of every good Republican candidate: He appealed to the right-sided voters with religion and less government. He also promised to be a business-friendly governor and won the heart of the largest conservative political power in the state: ALFA. The former U.S. Congressman also had a brilliant campaign staff – most of whom he ran off after winning.

Everyone knows what happened once Riley took office. He cut state expenses by a couple hundred million and then realized Alabama didn’t have enough money to pay the light bill. Against every Republican doctrine, Riley decided he’d be the governor who changed the state once and for all, proposing a tax increase that would have put $1.2 billion in the state coffers for the next 10 years.

Bad move. Riley lost the support of ALFA – some say he’s no longer welcome at ALFA functions. ALFA, in case you don’t know, fights tax increases like they’re a domestic version of al Qaeda.

It appears Riley lost his biggest supporter (and campaign funder) through that tax proposal, and for that, he’ll have to find another friendly financer – a tough task for any Republican. That’s not his only hurdle, though.

In Alabama politics, people still vote Democrat when local elections are on the line. Unfortunately for Riley, numerous local elections will be on the ballot when he faces Moore in the Republican primary next June. Riley will depend on moderate voters to win that primary, while Moore will rely on hard-nosed conservatives who never miss a Sunday or Wednesday sermon. Mind you, those people always vote in the Republican primary, too.

That puts Riley at a distinct disadvantage, and if he makes it through the Republican primary – regardless of the current poll numbers – he’ll surprise a number of educated political observers. Yes, polls show Riley with a firm lead over Moore right now, but Moore has a voting base that doesn’t always vote, thus it’s hard to survey them.

For Riley to win, he must convince Alabamians to vote in the Republican primary. The greater the turnout in June 2006, the greater his chances of slipping into the general election against Baxley or Siegelman. Riley needs every moderate voter to sign the Republican voter roll. Heck, he’ll even need some Democrats to become so disenfranchised with the Democratic candidates that they choose to vote in the Republican primary.

Riley’s supporters must be stronger and more committed than any other candidate’s supporters. And if Riley’s campaign managers are smart, they’ll begin what national Democrats have done well in the past 12 years – they’ll begin to mobilize voters. Starting right now.

Any other strategy and Riley will make a quick trip back to his farm in east Alabama.

Contact Jonathan McElvy at jhmcelvy@bama.ua.edu, or read more of his opinions at datelinealabama.com.

Editor’s Note: Jonathan McElvy, who has spent the past nine years editing and writing at five Alabama newspapers, is pursuing a graduate degree in journalism, with a focus on state politics, at the University of Alabama. This weekly column will focus on the 2006 gubernatorial election in Alabama and will appear in Wednesday’s issue of The Demopolis Times.