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By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

ATLANTA — In the final stretch of one of the nation’s most competitive Senate contests, the politics of race — always present in this Southern capital — are dominating the campaign.

Long, festive lines of mostly African-American voters stretched through an Atlanta shopping mall over the weekend, as Democrats waiting to cast early ballots snapped selfies with civil rights icon John Lewis.

Black pastors preached against Republican-led efforts to impose voter ID restrictions, while vans idled outside to transport the faithful to Georgia’s first-ever Sunday polling stations.

“You push us up against a wall, we’ll push back,” said the Rev. William E. Flippin Sr. of Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta.

A new mailer released by the Democratic Party in Georgia evoked the racial violence that followed the August police shooting of an unarmed young black man in Missouri, suggesting that a vote for Democratic newcomer Michelle Nunn was the best way “to prevent another Ferguson.”

Republican David Perdue has taken a similar approach to rally turnout of the state’s declining white majority. The millionaire businessman sprinted last week through upscale exurbs, small-town cafes and a gun-and-pawn shop.

Though some Republicans complain that Democrats are playing up the historical racial divide, courting the state’s fast-growing African-American population with registration drives and turnout efforts, Tea Party leader Gail Engelhardt, 69, of Bartow County says she isn’t as worried about losing the GOP’s decadelong stronghold in Georgia. But she wondered whether all the new voters were sufficiently educated on the issues.

“Sometimes you wish there was a litmus test that somebody had to pass to vote,” said Engelhardt, a white Baptist Sunday school teacher.

Race has always been a staple in Peach State elections. And it’s no surprise that turning out Atlanta’s robust black population will be crucial to Nunn’s chances on Nov. 4. Polls show her running neck and neck against Perdue, with neither candidate likely to cross the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

But theirs is a cautionary tale in a state where many believe the demographic shift will soon define who wins elections. By most accounts, Georgia’s days as a conservative white Republican stronghold are numbered.

An influx of African-Americans has made Atlanta the nation’s second-largest black city, and a minority registration drive this summer signed up 135,000 voters.

Whites slipped to 58 percent of the state electorate from more than 70 percent just a decade ago. African-Americans and Latinos are approaching 35 percent. A similar trend is underway nationally, with U.S. minority populations on track to outnumber whites in about 30 years, according to U.S. census estimates.

But focusing too heavily on race runs risks for both sides. Republicans know they need to broaden their base beyond the diminishing white electorate, while Democrats must appeal to moderate white voters to form a coalition that can win.

“When you think about the demographic shifts having an impact on elections, the question is always: When will that happen?” said Stacey Abrams, the Democratic House minority leader for the state General Assembly, who orchestrated the ambitious voter registration drive.

“The reality is the demographic shift was only going to be meaningful if that translated into registrations — and that’s something that happened this year,” she said. “The challenge for Republicans is their growth options are limited.”

At the Republican office in downtown Rome, a former textile town being revitalized as a retiree hub outside Atlanta, Perdue acknowledged that after a brutal primary, his more immediate task was uniting Republicans, not reaching out to the state’s growing black, Latino and other minority populations.

“We haven’t done a good job at outreach,” he said in an interview, predicting his campaign will nevertheless draw minority voters. “But it’s a long struggle.”

Like Nunn, daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, Perdue is a newcomer with a famous family name. In 2003, his cousin Sonny Perdue became the first Republican in Georgia elected as governor since the Reconstruction. Since then, Republicans have steadily come to dominate statewide offices.

But Nunn’s relentless attacks on Perdue’s business leadership have had an effect. She accused him of building a career by running companies that outsourced jobs from a state with the nation’s highest unemployment rate. Then Perdue stumbled during a recent debate, downplaying a pay discrimination lawsuit filed against one of his companies by saying it involved “less than 2,000 people.” Nunn replied, “That actually seems like quite a lot to me.”

Perdue’s supporters, like Ansley Saville, a Republican volunteer who has spent most of her life in Rome, is less concerned by his executive past than by how black churches are busing voters to the polls in Atlanta.

“If you say anything, you’re racist — the big ‘R’ word,” said Saville, who works part time at her husband’s steel company.

At the mall over the weekend, Drew and Monica Stevenson, with their 3-year-old daughter, Aubrey, took advantage of early voting. The young African-American professionals, transplants from Tennessee eight years ago, cast ballots for Nunn and hope their votes will begin to move Georgia away from the GOP.

“Everything’s so extreme — on both sides,” said Drew Stevenson, a computer engineer. “There’s a higher Democratic population than people think.”

Theirs were among 12,000 early votes cast last Sunday. Though 66 percent of those ballots were from African-Americans, just 835 were from newly registered voters, according to an analysis by longtime Republican strategist Mark Rountree. That’s hardly a game-changer, he said.

Nunn has struggled to rally Democratic voters, particularly as she creates distance from President Barack Obama and portrays herself as a moderate alternative to Washington partisanship, much the way her father positioned himself when he was a senator. She says her campaign is “illustrative of the tapestry of Georgia and its diversity.”

But it’s unclear whether she’ll be able to energize enough African-Americans. For Nunn to win, strategists say, black turnout will need to hit 30 percent, and early-voting results so far suggest she is hitting her mark.

But the choices this November drew an audible groan from LaVerne Johnson, a health care manager who relocated to the Atlanta suburbs from New Jersey and says she has had a hard time adjusting to the state’s conservative slant.

She called Nunn the “lesser of two evils.” Said Johnson: “I’m just watching the campaigns these last months and, ugh, it’s just like, we can do better than this.”

Photo: Members of Piney Grove church in Atlanta board one of several vans used on October 26, to transport voters to early-voting polling stations. It marked the first time polls in Georgia were open on a Sunday. Democratic organizers hope the van pools will help increase turnout of black voters. (Edmund Sanders/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

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