MACON — At a meet-and-greet in Warner Robins, Democrats and Republicans mix and mingle.
David Poythress, a Democratic candidate for governor, tries to work every room in the home, shake every hand.
Eventually, everyone moves to the den and around Poythress, who talks about his plans for fixing Georgia's economy, its schools, its transportation system.
A Macon native, Poythress has had a long career in public service — assistant attorney general, deputy revenue commissioner, secretary of state, commissioner of labor. At every stop, he tells the crowd, he was tasked with overseeing some sort of turnaround.
"All of these organizations needed strong, decisive leadership," said Poythress, sounding more like a three-star general — which he is — than a politician.
"They needed somebody who was going to say, 'Follow me! We're going to take this hill!' This is the kind of leadership I can bring to the state of Georgia."
The first hill — and it's a steep one — facing Poythress and the rest of a crowded field of candidates is catching up to the party's front-runner, former Gov. Roy Barnes, who has a huge lead in the polls and in fundraising.
With seven candidates in each party's July 20 primary, Poythress expects that both races will end in run-offs. And despite running fourth among Democrats in recent polls, he's confident of finishing ahead of state Rep. DuBose Porter of Dublin and state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, both of whom he currently trails.
"We expect to be in a runoff with former Gov. Barnes, and we think we'll win that on the second pass," he said in an interview with The Telegraph.
For that to happen, Poythress will likely need to pull some crossover votes from Republicans like Hatcher Graham, who's not pleased with his party's offerings.
"I don't see anything on that side that interests me," said Graham, a Warner Robins attorney. "And as for Barnes, when you have to start your campaign by apologizing ..."
Poythress, 66, grew up in Macon and graduated from Lanier High School, where Junior ROTC classes were mandatory. After attending Emory University, he served four years in the Air Force as a judge advocate officer and a year in Vietnam, where he was defense counsel and chief of military justice at Da Nang Air Base.
His father ran Macon's water department. His mother was a schoolteacher. Not surprisingly, he has some strong feelings about federal and state requirements on education, which he sees as "punitive and based on failure." Teachers need to do more teaching and less paperwork, he says.
"For 12 years the government of this state has blamed teachers. Teachers are not the problem. Teachers are the solution," he said. "I would publicly acknowledge that teachers are professional people."
Poythress, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998, said he's found a "surprisingly low level of interest" in the race so far.
"I think people are just now beginning to focus on it. I think the economy, the health care debate, the oil spill, ... there's just a lot of other things that had people distracted."
Pundits have predicted — and early elections in other states appear to confirm — an anti-incumbency sentiment among voters this year. Poythress said he's heard "a lot of frustration" from voters.
"It's not just anger at career politicians, although that's real, but the underlying emotion is just frustration that the economy just doesn't seem to be getting much better very quickly. People have either lost their jobs or they're afraid they're going to lose their jobs. People are very apprehensive."
Poythress has pledged that if elected, he'll not take a paycheck as governor until the state's jobless rate, currently topping 10 percent, is below 7 percent.
"When I get it under 7 percent, I'll have earned my paycheck," he said.
Among the Poythress proposals are state tax credits to encourage water and energy conservation and jobs in high-tech manufacturing, alternative energy, such as biofuels, or life sciences. He's also pushed for low-interest loans to attract film-making in Georgia.
Poythress is also a proponent for passenger rail between Atlanta and Macon and improved freight rail out of the port of Savannah, which he says could double its shipping capacity by 2014. Communities in south and middle Georgia could capitalize by becoming "inland ports," he said.
With the state facing serious fiscal challenges, Poythress wants changes in income and sales tax laws, which he said are "riddled" with loopholes for special interests and "political connections."
Whoever is elected faces serious challenges. Poythress might call them hills.
"My career has been a series of turnarounds," he said. "I haven't planned it that way. ... And I think that's where we are in the state of Georgia.'