U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal stepped up in front of several hundred supporters Friday morning in Gainesville to declare that he too will run for governor next year, a decision that probably closes out the field of candidates in the Republican primary.
There don't appear to be any other major GOP prospects on the horizon, which raises this interesting point of discussion: it seems as if the strongest two candidates in the Republican Party stable will not be running in this campaign.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston are sitting it out for different reasons: Cagle has back problems that required surgery, while Kingston's friend Eric Johnson decided to run for governor.
Kingston would have been an attractive candidate to the hard core Republican base that still likes George W. Bush and wants to say a big loud "no" to anything proposed by Barack Obama. Cagle would have run strongly among the more moderate Republicans and could have brought in swing voters as well.
Their absence from the race means a weaker candidate could emerge with the Republican nomination. That's not such good news for the GOP but it provides some encouragement to the underdog Democratic Party.
An independent poll conducted in Georgia last week by Research 2000 illustrates how tight the race could be.
The polling firm set up head-to-head matchups involving the major contenders on both sides of the ballot. The survey showed Republican John Oxendine ahead of Democrats Roy Barnes, Thurbert Baker and David Poythress by narrow margins ranging from two to five percentage points. The survey also had the GOP's Karen Handel trailing each of those three Democrats by similar close margins.
That shows we have a wide open race on our hands.
In handicapping the Republican field, Insurance Commissioner Oxendine is the front runner now, but not by much. Secretary of State Handel is the establishment candidate with backing from Gov. Sonny Perdue, master fundraiser Eric Tanenblatt and other party heavyweights.
Deal will probably have the backing of Republicans in the state House. Johnson will try to ride his private school voucher proposal to the governor's mansion even though his success at getting vouchers enacted would possibly mean the end of the state's public school system. State Rep. Austin Scott is evidently serious about running, but he is not as well known statewide as his four opponents.
Geographically, it's an evenly distributed set of candidates. Oxendine and Handel come from the metro Atlanta population center, Deal has his base of support in North Georgia, Johnson can draw on votes and money from the coastal area, and Scott is from Tifton in the heart of rural Georgia.
They all have separate challenges to overcome. Oxendine has won four statewide campaigns for political office but has some embarrassing incidents in his past to explain (all of those accidents involving state vehicles). Handel is an attractive female candidate for the Republicans, but Cathy Cox can tell her how difficult it is for a woman to run for governor.
Deal will find out, as Bo Ginn did in 1982, that living in Washington for all those years cuts you off from the concerns and issues of the folks back home. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. Johnson will have troublesome opposition from teachers and educators if he really pushes hard for private school vouchers
On the other side of the partisan aisle, the question waiting to be answered is what will former governor Barnes do.
Barnes is still touring the state talking to party activists about a possible bid, but has indicated he could wait until as late as June 1 to decide. If Barnes gets in, the race for the Democratic nomination is essentially over. Attorney General Baker can be a nuisance by drawing off black votes in the primary, but Baker did not help himself by working so hard to keep black youth Genarlow Wilson in prison, a legal stance that angered African-American community leaders.
House Minority Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin would have a better chance running for lieutenant governor, thereby clearing out the Democratic gubernatorial primary for Barnes. Poythress has a commendable record of public service over the years, but with Barnes in the race he becomes basically a vanity candidate.
That's who you'll have to choose from in the 2010 governor's race. Choose wisely.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Thursdays.