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Cagle on track for a run at governor's mansion
With Isakson out, Hall native may be a top contender in 2010
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle presides over the Georgia State Senate earlier this year. Some say Cagle's chances at becoming the next governor of Georgia may have improved recently with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson deciding not to run for the seat. - photo by Times file photo

Where will Casey Cagle be in January 2011?

Political observers began asking that question this week after U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., took his name out of the 2010 governor's race.

Cagle, a Hall County native in his second year as lieutenant governor, is among those prominently mentioned as a successor to Gov. Sonny Perdue, who is limited to two terms and cannot run again.
Can Cagle, after just four years on the statewide stage, make the move to the state's top office?

"I expect Casey not only to be a candidate but the league leader," said Gainesville civic leader Philip Wilheit, a Cagle supporter since the lieutenant governor's early days in the state Senate.

Wilheit, who is also a friend and supporter of Isakson, said there was pressure on the senator to make up his mind.

"He (Isakson) had told me in the last three months, that it would be the end of the year before he made up his mind," Wilheit said. "But the pressure got to the point that he had to play his hand. He would have been an awfully good governor as well, but we've got Casey who will be every bit as good, if not better."

While Cagle isn't commenting directly on his intentions, his office said he is being urged to run following Isakson's announcement.

"The lieutenant governor has been receiving a lot of encouraging phone calls from throughout the state, and he has been honored by the outpouring of support," Cagle spokesman Matt Markham said. "I feel certain that he will make a decision on his intentions in the near future."

Former state Sen. Chuck Clay is president of Insider Advantage, a political news service that released a poll this week among potential 2010 candidates showing Cagle running neck and neck with Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who has announced his bid for governor, with 17 percent each. They were followed by U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., at 10 percent.

"The political frontier in this state is about as wide open as I've seen it in forever," said Clay. "In terms of politics and observing, that's made for exciting times. Casey is still basking in some of the limelight and name recognition of having run a high visibility race."

Cagle surprised many in 2006 with his defeat of former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed. Cagle, an obscure state senator, did not have the name recognition of Reed, who had been a major player on the national political stage.

However, Reed's reputation had been tarnished by his association with Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is now serving a federal prison sentence for his role in defrauding American Indian casino interests.

Yet Clay said Cagle is not powerful enough to keep Oxendine or another potential challenger out of the race.

"You can't underestimate John Oxendine," Clay said. "He has been the single highest vote-getter and is consistently underrated as a candidate. He's at a point in his career that he is willing to walk away from being insurance commissioner to run for higher office."

But Clay says at two years in as lieutenant governor, Cagle has more to lose.

"Casey's got to ask himself, ‘Can I win?' But also, ‘Am I willing to lose?' He's got plenty of years to run for governor, just ask Zell Miller after 16 years as lieutenant governor."

One of Cagle's closest supporters and friends in the legislature, State Sen. Eugene "Chip" Pearson, R-Dawsonville, is much more cautious in his advice.

"That's a question for the lieutenant governor, not for me," Pearson said. "That's a big decision for one man to make based on his family, his business and his current role as lieutenant governor. The fact that Johnny has made it known that he is not coming back has opened some doors."

Cagle would be the first governor from Hall County since Allen Daniel Candler, the "one-eyed plowboy of Pigeon Roost," who served from 1898 to 1902.

Wilheit said there are some distinct advantages in having a governor from your community.

"We all know what George Busbee was able to do for the Albany and Southwest Georgia area," said Wilheit. (Busbee was governor from 1975 to 1983.)

"They will be very even handed in what they do for the state, but there is a special focus on where they're from. I think it would lend a lot of prestige to our area, but there are some tangible benefits, too."