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Impact of ethics report on Deal’s campaign is uncertain

Early poll shows former congressman trailing top 2 contenders

POSTED: April 3, 2010 12:20 a.m.

An ethics report released this week may have been the first time Georgians outside the 9th House District heard anything about gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal.

How much they care about the U.S. House of Representatives Office of Congressional Ethics report is another matter.

The report said the former U.S. representative may have violated six House ethics rules by earning too much outside income and by lobbying state officials to protect his Gainesville-based business, Gainesville Salvage Disposal.

The report recommended the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct look further into Deal’s actions.

Since he resigned March 21 from the House, where he served a 15-county area including Hall County for 18 years, Deal faces no penalty from the probe, but the 138-page report grabbed headlines in the state’s major media outlets for the earlier half of this week.

Deal denies any wrongdoing. His spokesman, Harris Blackwood, said Deal’s supporters are rallying behind him.

“Those who know Nathan best and who have come to know him have stood behind him solidly,” Blackwood said.

While voters who already know and support Deal may not be moved by the media attention, University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said the negative implications of the report may be harder to shrug off outside the 9th District.

“As we’re told by our mothers when we’re very young, first impressions are very important, so brush your teeth and comb your hair,” Bullock said.

The OCE report questions Deal’s character and could be used by his political foes, Bullock said.

“The average man or woman in the streets who doesn’t feel like they get any favored treatment from the government and is not happy with paying taxes and is worried about not holding onto their job, etc, etc. When they hear that Nathan Deal made $75,000 extra above his congressional salary, they’re going to say ‘Whoa!’” Bullock said. “They’re going to find that troubling, potentially.”

The consequences could hamper fundraising and smear the former congressman’s campaign, said Tom Baxter, editor of the Southern Political Report.

“It’s not only the report itself, but the way that he reacts to the report, and he’s been very angry in his own defense,” Baxter said.

“That’s also the first impression that a lot of people have of him ... It’s also the kind of thing that it’s not going to fade from memory in the short time that we’ve got left.”

Deal’s position in polls taken by Insider Advantage has been relatively stable over the last 11 months, as his support has ranged from 8 percent and 12 percent of the Republican voters polled.

A late February poll conducted by Insider Advantage showed that with 36 percent, undecided Republican voters led over any of the candidates. But Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine had the support of 27 percent of polled voters.

Former Secretary of State Karen Handel followed with 13 percent, Deal had 9 percent and former state Sen. Eric Johnson trailed with 7 percent.

But the poll Deal’s campaign has mentioned the most is one released by Rasmussen Reports on March 19.

The poll surveyed 500 likely voters, asking them to compare each Republican gubernatorial candidate with Democratic candidate and former Gov. Roy Barnes.

The report says Deal would lead Barnes 43 percent to 40 percent. The poll also gives Handel a three-point-lead over Barnes, 42 percent to 39 percent.

A news release from Rasmussen says the poll shows “Barnes runs virtually even with all four of his top Republican challengers in the 2010 gubernatorial race in Georgia,” but Deal has used it repeatedly to show he is the strongest Republican contender against Barnes.

“You can make the argument that we’re all within a stone’s throw of each other, but our number was the highest,” Blackwood said.

“I’m not a mathematician, but 43 percent is more than 42 percent.”

Still, even Blackwood admits that “everything is so close right now.”

The question now is whether the recently-released OCE report — and Deal’s handling of it — will have any effect on his plans and ability to secure the Republican nomination.

Blackwood said the campaign is working harder than ever, and the report “has, by no means, taken the wind out of our sails.”
New poll numbers showing the effects of the OCE report are sure to come soon.

But Matt Towery, chief executive officer of Insider Advantage, said that since most voters are still undecided, those numbers likely won’t matter much.

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to these early polls even though we have to conduct them,” Towery said.

Right now, Towery said the “likely voters” polled are usually answering surveys based on name recognition, which is why both Towery and Bullock say Oxendine has led his fellow Republicans in previous surveys.

With all the media attention surrounding the OCE report, it’s quite possible Deal might get a taste of that. Whether it will have a positive or negative effect is still to be seen, and probably doesn’t matter right now, Towery said.

“The public, so often, doesn’t pay attention to things this far out that it’s entirely possible that he could have picked up name ID and actually go up in the polls... At this point in time, almost any publicity is good publicity because at least you’re known,” Towery said. “It’s possible he’s picked up more name ID and it’s negative, so he goes down in the polls a little bit, but when you’re talking about everybody being at 10 to 12 to 14 points, a drop is not really a substantial thing.”

If Deal becomes a major factor in the July 20 party primary, his Republican opponents likely will use the OCE report against him, Bullock said.

The Deal campaign doesn’t deny the report will come to haunt them, but said it is instead focused on showing voters that Deal is a leader worthy of election.

“We have no doubt that we will see this again,” Blackwood said. “We’ll see the headlines from newspapers, and all of this will come back again, because that’s the negative campaigning that some campaigns are going to engage in.”

Towery, on the other hand, says most candidates in the primary will be spending their resources in an effort to increase recognition of their own names, not tarnish another candidate’s.

But both Bullock and Towery agree that right now, voters aren’t paying attention.

“You can’t write Nathan Deal out of this race just because of this issue,” Towery said. “We’re a long way out, and the average person doesn’t care.”



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