Just days before Tuesday’s runoff, Karen Handel holds a slight edge over Nathan Deal in the GOP race for governor, according to a new statewide poll conducted for the Georgia Newspaper Partnership.
Handel leads Deal 47 percent to 42 percent with 11 percent undecided, and the two are battling for downstate voters who supported someone else in the July 20 primary.
The race for the Republican nomination has been a bruising campaign that has garnered national attention through high-profile endorsements from GOP stalwarts such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is supporting Handel, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who endorsed Deal.
It all ends Tuesday, as GOP voters pick a candidate to face Democratic nominee Roy Barnes in November.
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While Handel leads overall, the poll found that Deal gets nearly a majority — 48 percent — of support from voters who backed a losing candidate in the primary.
Those voters, who backed former state Sen. Eric Johnson, state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine or one of the three other candidates in the primary, could be the key to Tuesday’s vote, said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the poll.
“Deal really needs to get those Oxendine voters back and the Johnson voters back to the polls and convince them to vote for him,” Coker said.
The question is whether those voters are motivated enough to make another trip to the polls. Coker said he would expect fewer than half of all primary voters to return Tuesday, and those who supported Handel or Deal are the most likely to vote again.
In the primary, Handel led with 34 percent of the vote, followed by Deal with 23 percent. Johnson took 20 percent and Oxendine, 17 percent.
The poll shows Handel, the former secretary of state, dominating her home base of metro Atlanta, while Deal did especially well in north Georgia, much of which he represented in Congress for 18 years. But in south Georgia, Johnson and Oxendine had their best showing, making voters from that region a key for Tuesday’s runoff.
“That belt running from Augusta to Savannah and all the way to Columbus and through Macon — that’s where the race is going to be decided,” Coker said.
Both campaigns said Saturday the new poll offers good news.
“It’s clear that the people of Georgia are rejecting congressman Deal’s negative attacks on Karen,” Handel spokesman Dan McLagan said. “We feel a momentum.”
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the results show Deal keeping pace with Handel.
“Nathan Deal is neck and neck with Karen Handel after suffering two weeks of withering, reckless, false attacks,” he said. “It shows what direction the race is moving. If those undecideds who voted for someone else break along the line they already have, we’re sitting really pretty.”
Robinson also noted the poll was already under way when Huckabee endorsed Deal on Thursday, and said his man’s bid has gotten a boost from the 2008 presidential candidate’s support. Huckabee will rally voters for Deal today in Gainesville, while Palin visits Atlanta on Handel’s behalf on Monday.
But the poll doesn’t indicate that endorsements by Palin, Huckabee, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is supporting Deal, or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who endorsed Handel, are having a big impact.
When those polled were asked the most important reason they were supporting a candidate, only 9 percent of Handel supporters and 8 percent of Deal supporters said it was because of endorsements.
Meanwhile, poll respondents cited the economy and jobs as the top issue driving them to the polls Tuesday. Handel voters cited economic issues as the top reason they are supporting her, while Deal voters cited his experience.
In the coastal town of Brunswick, retired city water employee Victor Ross said budgets and taxes are his most important issue. Ross, 62, believes Deal will make cuts rather than try to squeeze more money out of the public.
“The message from government seems to be, ‘We can’t cut back, but you have to,’’’ he said.
Ross is among those coveted Republicans who voted for someone other than Handel or Deal in the primary. He said he had initially been leaning toward Handel but has been turned off by the tone of her campaign.
“I’ve seen a vindictive side I don’t like,” Ross said. “She’s also shown a lack of maturity.”
In Macon, former Mayor David Carter said he’s supporting Handel because of her experience as a former Fulton County commissioner.
“I know from experience how hard it can be to be involved in local politics, and I think her record demonstrates the toughness required to be our next governor,” said Carter, 80.
Farther north, Jennie Hudson of Cartersville takes a different view of Handel’s background, specifically her lack of a college degree and the fact that she hasn’t finished a full term in elected office. She served a partial term on the Fulton County Commission and resigned as secretary of state in 2009 to run for governor.
“She’s never finished anything she’s started, never finished anything she’s put out to do,” said Hudson, 79.
Michael Falany, 60, of Loganville said he and his wife plan to vote for Deal, in part because they believe Handel has run a negative campaign.
Falany, who retired from AT&T three years ago, said he wasn’t bothered that Deal has been accused of violating congressional ethics rules over his company’s connection to a state program as much as he was concerned about Handel’s failure to serve a full term in elected office.
“If she gets elected governor, in a few years would she be running for the Senate?” he said.
Of the ethics charges, Falany said as long as Deal didn’t break any laws and was open about the business relationship, it was OK. “I think that is a tempest (in a) teapot,” he said. “If you become an elected official, you can’t cut yourself off from real life.”
But for James Smith, a retired forester in Cumming, Deal’s long tenure in politics — first in the General Assembly and then in Congress — pushed him into Handel’s camp.
“I’m for the lady,” he said. “I want to get away from the old politics — the good ol’ boys. Let’s get something done.”
Smith said Deal not only served too long, but doesn’t have much to show for it.
“He hasn’t accomplished anything in, what, 18 years?” the 80-year-old said. “Everything that has come out of Congress for a long time is going broke. I don’t think they can accomplish anything — either side. Look at Social Security. Anything they get in, it turns bad.”
Joseph Zitzelberger, a 41-year-old computer programmer in Columbus, said he’s sticking with Handel.
“They are really about identical on about every major issue,” he said of the candidates. He doesn’t like that Deal resigned from Congress, forcing a special election to replace him.
“He could have saved the state a lot of money if he had just not run for re-election in 2008,” Zitzelberger said. “I think he already knew he was going to run for governor.”
Zitzelberger feels the most important issue in the 2010 campaign is reducing government spending.
“The way that money is being spent just has to be addressed by the next governor,” he said. “I think Handel will do that.”
Aaron Gould Shenin is a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Steve Visser of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kevin Myrick of the Rome News-Tribune, Terry Dickson of the Georgia Times-Union, Carl Lewis of The (Macon) Telegraph and Larry Gierer of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer contributed to this article.