In Perry, Nathan Deal was a lone voice of optimism

So it was with Tuesday’s “wall of sound” WMAZ debates at the Georgia National Fair — conducted, appropriately enough, in an auditorium that usually hosts livestock auctions.

The din was on par with what you’d find at the end of a runway at nearby Robins Air Force Base. Six candidates, in back-to-back debates for the Senate and governor, could barely hear themselves think, much less catch the words that escaped their own mouths. We panelists asked questions, but the answers were sucked into the roar of a crowd that numbered in the thousands.

So if you were part of the show, you paid attention not to what was said, but how the message was delivered. And suddenly the reason behind Gov. Nathan Deal’s current struggle for re-election became self-evident.

Of the half-dozen candidates who took the stage in Perry, Deal was the only optimist — at least by body language and facial expressions intended to convey a confidence that good times, if not actually here, are on their way.

This was, of course, only a theory. But a midnight Internet session, to determine what the candidates had actually said four hours earlier, confirmed it.

Let’s use the Republican incumbent’s closing remarks as a benchmark. Deal touted tens of thousands of well-paying jobs created during his nearly four years in office, the fact that state government has kept its AAA bond rating, and an endorsement from a small business association. Left unmentioned was the recent — some would say puzzling — uptick in the state’s unemployment rate, to 8.1 percent. The highest in the nation.

“If you think these last four years have been good, and I believe they have been, just wait,” the governor said. “We’re going to do even more.”

Earlier in the debate, the 72-year-old Deal had rebuffed 39-year-old Democrat Jason Carter’s accusation that he has shortchanged education funding in Georgia. “Senator Carter, I know that you’re young and inexperienced,” Deal said, “but obviously you’re trying to hold me accountable for the Great Recession.”

Carter’s riposte was no surprise: Every state had a Great Recession. “We’re last in unemployment,” Carter said. “That means every other state is doing better. Every other governor and the District of Columbia have got a jump on Georgia.”

“The average family in Georgia makes $6,500 less than they did five years ago,” he said. “Georgia’s getting poorer.”

Even Libertarian Andrew Hunt joined in on the bleakness. “Deal wants to continue with the same economic plan that has gotten us to the highest unemployment in the state,” Hunt said. “We need to notch this up.”

None of this was a surprise. But the debate for governor was preceded by a session with the three candidates for the U.S. Senate, who all pointed to economic calamity. Particularly the governor’s de facto running mate, David Perdue.

“We have a full-blown crisis in America today. We have fewer people working than at any time since Jimmy Carter was president. Middle-class wages have dropped dramatically,” Perdue said. “And yes, in the last six years, we’ve put 4 million women into poverty under the failed administration of this president.”

He wasn’t finished. “Seventy percent of us know we’re headed in the wrong direction,” the former Dollar General CEO said, calling for a “new era of economic growth in America.

“Our kids deserve better than what we’re giving them today,” Perdue said. Yes, the Republican was aiming those remarks at President Barack Obama and his rival, Democrat Michelle Nunn.

But Georgia’s economy can’t be separated from the national one — not anymore. And throw-the-bums-out language is a weapon that can easily rebound on a state filled with Republican incumbents.

Nunn, for her part, painted a situation that was every bit as dire — should her opponent be elected. “David Perdue has endorsed shutting down our government as a political tactic. That is not helpful. It has cost our economy billions of dollars — 77,000 people in Georgia were furloughed during that government shutdown,” she said.

This is why Deal has issued a press release for every new business that opens its doors in this state. Why, on Wednesday, he bragged of a 5 percent increase in state revenue for September, a sign of economic resurgence. Why his ads are filled with working women, uttering lines like these: “Good paying jobs for people just like us, whose futures are even brighter.”

We think of the Republican incumbent as having two opponents in November. But the Perry debates show that he really has five — three of whom have millions of dollars to get across their message that Georgia is headed for hell in a handbasket.

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