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A Cookie Magnate Sets Out to Burn Gingrich

Democrat Coles digs deep into pockets for all-out campaign to unseat the House Speaker in Georgia's Sixth District

Michael Coles is an entrepreneurial wizard who has deep pockets and a sense that he can do anything - if he puts his mind to it. He is drawing deeply on these resources in an attempt to do what many say is next to impossible: unseat Republican Newt Gingrich in Georgia's Sixth Congressional District.

What makes Mr. Coles's battle an uphill one is simple: He is running as a Democrat in one of the most secure Republican districts in the country against a candidate who became Speaker of the House and architect of the Contract With America.

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National polls that show the Speaker's popularity at an all-time low. But at home pundits say Mr. Gingrich is in safe territory in the affluent area of tree-shaded suburbs north of Atlanta.

Still, Democrats maintain Coles, CEO and co-founder of the Great American Cookie Company, has a chance because he's following the president's example by positioning himself as a conservative Democrat. And the Gingrich campaign, while not worried about losing the race, is nonetheless taking the challenge seriously.

"This is not fun and games," says Michael Shields, a spokesman for the Gingrich campaign. "In the age of television when someone says, 'I'll spend what it takes' ... anything can happen, so you definitely have to go out and campaign hard and get your message out there."

Coles began his cookie business in 1977 with no food industry experience. The day he began, he and his partner burned their first batch of cookies, and the fire department was called. Now, the company has hundreds of stores and about $100 million in sales.

Walking in Nunn's shoes

Coles describes himself as a conservative Southern Democrat in the style of Georgia's Sen. Sam Nunn (D) - "fiscally conservative, not spending beyond our means," he says. "But at the same time there are some social responsibilities that government does need to be involved in like education, environment, crime."

Coles is campaigning on the grounds that residents of the Sixth District want better representation and that, as a businessman, he provides a different perspective. Voters "need to have a congressman more interested in hearing the peoples' voice than their own," he says, referring to Gingrich. "Especially when Washington is cutting back. Only businesses can understand that you don't just cut stuff and it automatically fixes itself."

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Coles says he is prepared to spend what he believes is an appropriate amount - about $3.5 million - to relay his message. Most funds will come from his coffers, though he hopes to raise money from other sources. He has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads and stumps at luncheons, clubs, and parades throughout the district.

Gingrich, whose aides say is not being forced to spend more time in the district, is nevertheless also attending rallies and campaigning for votes. And he's getting support from fellow Republicans. On Saturday, New York Rep. Susan Molinari (R) and Ohio Rep. John Kasich (R) spoke at a dinner here in his honor.

Still, some Democrats say Coles could pull an upset. "It's a strongly Republican district, there's no two ways about it," says Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster in Virginia. "A traditional Democrat cannot win there, but a guy like Michael Coles has a shot ... because he's moderate to conservative in outlook."

But while the Coles campaign cites surveys that show 47 percent of Gingrich constituents say he's not performing well in his job, the Speaker's aides released a poll last week affirming Gingrich maintains a 29-point lead.

Republicans charge Coles is a liberal in disguise. "He's going to try to position himself as a conservative, but he's getting support from the labor unions ... he's the water boy for the national Democrats in Washington," Mr. Shields says. "We have yet to hear where he stands on most of the issues."

Gingrich's victory margins

Many political analysts say Gingrich is safe despite previous close margins in other elections. In 1990 he won a general election by only 974 votes in a different, more Democratic district. When he switched to the new Sixth District (after Georgia's districts were redrawn), he won the 1992 primary by a mere 980 votes, but he won the general election by 58 percent and the 1994 race by more than 60 percent.

"What Coles can do, and the reason he's running, is to try to tie the Speaker down so he can't get out and campaign for other people," says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster in Atlanta.

Coles, for his part, says he is used to adversity. Soon after he started his cookie company, a near-fatal motorcycle accident left him disabled, and he was told he'd never walk again. He not only walked again but also set two world transcontinental bicycling records.

"I've always been told all my life what my limits were and how far I'd go with what I could achieve," he says. "Basically, I've just never believed that."

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