By Billy Corriher
See Page 10 for a list of area poll locations and a sample ballot.
As campaigning for the Georgia Democratic presidential primary comes to a close, the latest polls are suggesting Sen. John Edwards could be closing in on Sen. John Kerry's lead.
With many pundits speculating that Georgia is a "must win" state for Edwards, the North Carolina senator has spent the last couple of weeks courting Georgia voters.
So far Edwards only has 206 delegates to Kerry's 686, with 2,162 needed to clinch the nomination. And the Massachusetts senator has a double-digit lead over Edwards among likely voters in Tuesday's Georgia presidential primary, according to a poll by Zogby International.
Of the 395 voters polled last week, 39 percent favored Kerry and 23 percent favored Edwards. The two other candidates, Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, were in single digits, with an additional 21 percent who were undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Despite his lead, Kerry was losing support over the two days the poll was conducted, said John Zogby, president of the polling firm. Kerry led Edwards 49 percent to 19 percent among 126 voters contacted last Monday, but the lead dropped to 35 percent to 25 percent among the 269 voters polled Tuesday.
"Something is definitely happening here," Zogby said. "I'm going to suggest that Edwards wins Georgia. He's a late closer."
Emory University Professor Merle Black, who specializes in politics in the South, said Georgia's primary race could go either way.
"Kerry's been campaigning in Atlanta and Edwards has been working the rural areas," he said. "If he gets rural voters to the polls, I could see how Edwards could take the state."
Black said Edwards must win Georgia if he wants to keep his hopes for the Democratic nomination alive. Kerry has won 18 state primaries, but the only state Edwards has carried so far is South Carolina. Ten states are holding primary elections Tuesday, but Georgia is the only "Super Tuesday" race where Edwards seems competitive.
Although some have speculated that Edwards could run as Kerry's vice president, Black said he thinks that's unlikely.
"I don't think the vice president means a whole lot, and I doubt Edwards would bring any states with him," he said.
Jonesboro resident Audra Braswell said she supports Edwards because he could get support in the South and he is the best candidate to defeat President Bush.
"I like (Edwards') plans for the country," she said. "He really cares about the middle class."
Braswell said she thinks Edwards has a good chance of winning in Georgia, where his Southern roots could give him an advantage.
"I think we all kind of like someone who talks our language," she said.
Edwards could also get a boost from the Georgia state flag referendum, which will also be on Tuesday's ballot, as well as the state's open primary, which allows Republicans and independents to vote in the Democratic primary.
About 20 percent of those polled who plan to vote in the Democratic primary identified themselves as Republicans, and about 14 percent identified themselves as independents, two groups that voiced support for Edwards in the Zogby poll.
However, Kerry has a strong lead over Edwards, 49 percent to 20 percent, among self-described Democrats and also beats him among black voters, who made up 41 percent of the likely voters polled, by a margin of 50 percent to 8 percent.
Kerry is highlighting his military service in his appeal to Georgia voters, running television ads with former Ga. Sen. Max Cleland, a fellow Vietnam War veteran.
Morrow resident Darius Mitchem said Kerry's military record makes him an attractive candidate.
Mitchem said he hasn't totally made up his mind yet, but he is leaning toward Kerry, who's also the more experienced candidate.
"I like Edwards, but he doesn't have Kerry's experience," he said. "I think (Kerry) can beat Bush."
Mitchem said Edwards could win Georgia, but he was certain Kerry would still get the Democratic nomination.
Black said that no matter who wins the Georgia primary, the state is still leaning toward supporting Bush, who is running unopposed in the state's Republican primary, in the November election.
"Bush would be the favorite, but I think the president's less popular than he has been," he said.
Much of Bush's declining approval numbers are a result of the still struggling economy, Black said.
"It's a long time until November," he said. "If the economy comes back and people believe it's coming back, that would be a huge boost for the president."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.