ATLANTA — The Sarah Palin effect hit Georgia like a thunderbolt this primary season.
Before the former Alaska governor handed Republican Karen Handel her coveted endorsement, the former secretary of state was struggling to raise money, fighting off attacks that she was too liberal and running behind in the polls.
Post-Palin, Handel catapulted to the top of a crowded field in Tuesday’s primary election and won a spot in an Aug. 10 GOP runoff — the first woman to emerge from a gubernatorial primary in Georgia history.
“Karen Handel is about to ‘Bring it on’ in a run-off against career politician!” Palin tweeted on Wednesday.
That so-called career politician — Republican Nathan Deal — was helped into the Georgia runoff by his own high-wattage political endorsement from former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Palin and Gingrich are possible presidential contenders in 2012, and some have already cast the Georgia runoff as a proxy for a White House showdown.
Both are considered conservative standard-bearers but they appeal to different segments of the GOP.
Palin is a pop culture icon, as apt to appear on the cover of an entertainment magazine as she is to be quoted in a political journal. Gingrich is the former professor and policy wonk who’s made health care his latest policy crusade.
Another potential White House candidate in 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, weighed in Wednesday supporting Handel.
Gauging exactly how much big-name endorsements matter is a tough task. Voters cast a ballot for many different reasons. But political experts say such high-profile backing can give a little-known candidate a stamp of legitimacy.
And one thing is certain: State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, once widely regarded as the front-runner in the GOP primary, saw his support collapse in the homestretch and limped into a fourth place finish in the seven-person contest Tuesday night. Oxendine had no high-profile support from the political establishment, despite raising more cash than anyone else in the Republican field.
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary, robocalls from Palin and Gingrich poured into Georgia GOP households.
“It means quite a bit, Newt having represented part of Georgia and having brought the speakership to the state of Georgia,” Deal said Wednesday morning. “I’m not someone he knows from a distance. I’m somebody who’s worked with him. He knows my record.”
Handel said Palin gave her campaign “great momentum coming into Tuesday.”
“And that’s what you want in any campaign, to peak at the right time. Timing really is everything,” she said.
Other endorsements received less attention but also carried weight.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, whose name is virtually synonymous these days with her state’s law cracking down on illegal immigrants, helped bolster Handel’s support with conservatives before Palin came along.
Deal has the support of all but two members of the state’s Republican congressional delegation. Those congressmen hold some sway in their home districts, especially among party loyalists.
Palin’s endorsement in Georgia was not without controversy. Georgia Right to Life said they were shocked Palin would back Handel, who supports exceptions to a ban on abortion for rape, incest and life of the mother. The group had refused to back Handel.
Whether Palin or Gingrich will stump for their preferred candidates is still an open question. Handel said she’d like to see Palin come, but nothing has been finalized.
“I suspect Karen Handel will do everything she possibly can to get Sarah Palin to come to Georgia in the next three weeks,” said Steve Anthony, a political science professor at Georgia State University. “It will help her get some votes, and she can hold a fundraiser and raise a ton of money.”
A Palin rally for Republican Nikki Haley in South Carolina helped lift Haley to a win in that primary.
For now, Handel and Deal are hunkered down replenishing their campaign coffers and mapping out a strategy for the three weeks.
The winner will face Democrat Roy Barnes, who won his party’s nomination outright with a whopping 66 percent of the vote. Barnes will have the next 21 days to stock his own war chest and avoid the kind of bare-knuckles brawl that is looming between the GOP contenders.