By Shannon McCaffrey
The Associated Press
MARIETTA, Ga. - Ending months of speculation, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes announced Wednesday that he'll run to reclaim his old job.
The Democrat, who was ousted in 2002 after a single term, turned on the folksy Southern charm even as he blasted the state's ruling GOP for leading the state in wrong direction on transportation, education and job creation. Barnes - whose reputation for arrogance earned him the nickname "King Roy" while he was in the governor's mansion - struck a far humbler tone on Wednesday, saying he'd learned from mistakes in his first term and was ready for a fresh start with voters.
"I realize that when I was governor before I didn't do enough listening. I realize that I was impatient and had an aggressive agenda," Barnes said Wednesday surrounded by his family in a packed hotel conference room in Marietta.
"I didn't take time to explain why I thought certain issues were important or time-sensitive and critical."
He went on to add that, "my mama said I was the hard-headedest kid that God ever put on the face of the earth and my mama was always right."
Barnes said he would file paperwork to enter the race officially in July so that he can complete a term as chairman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Formally entering the race in July also allows him to avoid the first round of campaign disclosure reports due July 1, providing him breathing room to raise the money often viewed as a key indicator of political viability.
Barnes' comeback bid, while not unexpected, nonetheless shakes up Georgia's crowded governor's race, which is already in full swing with more than a year to go before primaries next summer. Most political experts say the 61-year-old lawyer - a formidable fundraiser with high name recognition around the state - immediately becomes the clear front runner for his party's nomination.
The three other Democrats in the race - Attorney General Thurbert Baker, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and former Georgia National Commander David Poythress - each said Wednesday they planned to remain in the contest.
Poythress predicted Barnes would be haunted by his past.
The ex-governor has "a history of divisive leadership style. People are going to remember that and that is not what this campaign should be about," he said.
Baker spokesman Jeff DiSantis said the state's problems from infrastructure to education "have gone unsolved for years by governor after governor."
Georgia voters "want and deserve a governor focused on leading Georgia into the future, not refighting the fights of the past," DiSantis said.
Porter said his plans for transportation and education and proven track record would make him the Democratic primary victor.
"I am not running against Roy or any other candidate, I am running for Georgia," Porter said.
Barnes declared his opponents "all good folks."
"But this is who has the training and the experience and the vision to do what we need to do right now."
RESPONSES TO BARNES ANNOUNCEMENT
David Poythress, Democratic candidate for governor
"I will continue to march towards victory because most Democrats and many Republicans agree with me that this race should be about the future. Roy Barnes is a polarizing figure in Georgia politics. Folks either love him or despise him. So that's what this race will be about: my plans for the future versus the legacy of Roy's past." (See complete statement at http://poythressforgovernor.com/newsroom)
Georgia Republican Party Chairman Sue P. Everhart
"Since 2002, solid and responsive Republican leadership has a proven record of making Georgia a better place. Today's entrance of former Governor Roy Barnes into the Governor's race underscores the ongoing lack of direction of Georgia Democrats as well as their inability to listen to the people. If the Democrats wish to put forward a candidate whose own record as Governor was marked by radically gerrymandered voting districts, blaming teachers for his failings in education, strong-armed fundraising tactics, and over-taxing Georgians, then we look forward to facing that candidate in the 2010 General Election." (www.gagop.org)
Harris Blackwood, spokesman for Republican candidate Nathan Deal
"Roy and I served together in the state senate and I consider him a friend. I am sure that he is as focused on getting his party's nomination as I am on mine. Today, I wish him well."
(See Web site at www.nathandeal.com)
Ben Fry, campaign manager for Republican candidate Eric Johnson
"Eric Johnson is the right man for the job because he is tested, proven and ready to lead. Eric was instrumental in giving Georgians a choice between principled conservative policies and the heavy-handed mandates of the Barnes administration. He ... is confident that voters will make the same decision they did in 2002 when they trusted Eric and his colleagues to govern Georgia."
(See complete statement at www.johnsonforgeorgians. com)
Yet for all Barnes' star power in the Democratic Party, some still view him as the polarizing figure who handed the state over to the GOP. Barnes' loss in 2002 to Republican Sonny Perdue, then a little-known rural state senator, ushered in Georgia's first GOP governor since Reconstruction. The Republican hold on the state has only tightened since then.
Barnes retreated to his lucrative Marietta law practice after his stinging loss. But in recent months he began a very public flirtation with a return to politics, turning up at prayer breakfasts and civic meetings around the state.
He said Wednesday that his conversations with pessimistic voters helped convince him to jump back into politics.
And he argued that some of his old battles - feuds with the state teachers over education reform and a fight over the state flag - have blown over.
Barnes led an effort to remove the Confederate battle symbol from Georgia's flag. The effort won him a John F. Kennedy "Profile in Courage" award in 2003.
He said Wednesday that education and transportation would be his top priorities if elected followed closely by jobs and the state's lingering water issues.
While Barnes must navigate a Democratic primary, the six Republicans who have lined up to replace Perdue were already eyeing him eagerly. Secretary of State Karen Handel's campaign is staffed by some of the same people that helped Perdue defeat Barnes in 2002, including the media strategist who created an infamous ad that depicted Barnes as a marauding rat.
Bring it on, Barnes said.
"I've been cussed by experts for 30 years now," Barnes said. "And some of these folks are just rank amateurs."
"Have we got to this, that we can't talk about water and transportation and education?" he said Wednesday. "The only way you know to run a race is to call somebody names and dress them up in rat suits?"