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GNP poll: Governor's race tight to the finish
Handel leads Deal 47-42 percent in latest survey before Tuesday's runoff
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GNP poll results

If the Aug. 10 runoff primary for governor were held today, would you vote for Karen Handel or Nathan Deal?

State: Handel 47%, Deal 42%, Undecided 11%
Metro Atlanta: Handel 52%, Deal 37%, Undecided 11%
Rest of state: Deal 47%, Handel 42%, Undecided 11%
Men: Deal 46%, Handel 45%, Undecided 9%
Women: Handel 50%, Deal 37%, Undecided 13%
Ages 50 and older: Handel 47%, Deal 39%, Undecided 14%
Ages 50 and younger: Handel 47%, Deal 44%, Undecided 9%

Survey of 625 likely Republican voters conducted Aug. 4-6 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc.; margin of error plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Former Secretary of State Karen Handel is slightly ahead of Nathan Deal in the Republican race for governor.

But it may be Deal who gets the support of most of the voters who originally cast ballots for other Republican gubernatorial candidates, according to a poll commissioned by the Georgia Newspaper Partnership.

The new poll was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which surveyed 625 Georgians likely to vote in Tuesday's gubernatorial runoff election.

Deal and Handel are set for Tuesday's runoff after neither earned a majority of votes in the July 20 primary. The poll shows Handel in the lead with the support of 47 percent of those surveyed. Deal is close behind with 42 percent; another 11 percent of respondents say they haven't picked a candidate.

The primary eliminated five other Republican candidates seeking the governor's office, and the poll shows 48 percent of the voters who originally supported a losing candidate in July will vote for Deal.

Another 34 percent likely will vote for Handel, with the rest undecided.

Voters who backed former state Sen. Eric Johnson, 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.

"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. Those who supported Handel or Deal are 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.

Though the poll shows no candidate with a clear path to Tuesday victory, Handel is ahead, if only slightly.
Still, a spokesman for the Deal campaign called the results "not what Karen Handel wanted to see today."

"Nathan has suffered a relentless barrage of attacks, of false attacks - false attacks - from Karen Handel all over Georgia media for the last two weeks," said Brian Robinson, the campaign's spokesman. "This poll was taken just as Nathan had come through that two-week period and he's still neck and neck with her."

But Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Handel's campaign, said the results should be a disappointment to Deal. McLagan said there was no denying that the poll was a win for Handel.

"Brian's very clever, but he could make a free puppy seem like a bad thing," McLagan said of Deal's spokesman.

The poll shows Handel, the former secretary of state, dominating her home base of metro Atlanta (52 to 37 percent). Deal ranks 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.

The Deal campaign is counting on support from voters who originally supported Oxendine and Johnson, Robinson said.

"What we said about the primary and the runoff is coming true: the conservative voters who voted for Eric Johnson and every other Republican candidate are picking the conservative in the race and that's Nathan Deal, and many others are just simply rejecting (Handel's) relentlessly negative, no-ideas campaign," Robinson said.

The Handel campaign said the poll showed it had weathered Deal's attacks.

"It's clear that the people of Georgia are rejecting Congressman Deal's negative attacks on Karen," McLagan said. "We feel a momentum."

Robinson noted that surveying for the poll was under way when Deal unveiled his most recent ad campaign, and as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee threw his support behind Deal on Thursday.

Huckabee will rally with Deal in Gainesville today, while Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will appear Monday with Handel in Atlanta. High-profile endorsements were attributed to both candidates' last-minute success in the July primary.

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.

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."

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, all members of the Georgia Newspaper Partnership, contributed to this article.