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Poll: Handel now leads tight GOP primary race
Deal, Oxendine in near dead heat to make runoff
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John Oxendine may be losing ground in his bid to be Georgia’s governor, but Karen Handel and Nathan Deal are seeing their support grow in the final days before Tuesday’s primary, a new poll shows.

The poll, commissioned by The Times and 12 other newspapers in the Georgia Newspaper Partnership, puts former Secretary of State Handel, flying high after an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, in the lead to be the Republican nominee.

It marks a significant change from a similar GNP poll taken less than a week ago. But it shows that the GOP primary is still up in the air.

Handel has the support of 29 percent of voters. Oxendine, who has led nearly all polls until recently, now is second with 22 percent. Deal is at 20 percent.

Brian Robinson, communications director for the Deal campaign, called the poll results “awesome” and an indication that Deal was positioned to make it into a runoff Aug. 10.

“In the final days, this is not what John Oxendine wants to see,” Robinson said. “It is what we want to see.”

The poll, conducted for the GNP by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research on Thursday and Friday, surveyed 400 Republicans who plan to vote in Tuesday’s primary. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 points.

Voters head to the polls Tuesday for the Republican and Democratic primaries. In Georgia, runoffs are necessary if no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the primary. A runoff between the top two vote-getters was always expected in the crowded Republican gubernatorial race.

Guessing who those two candidates might be has proven more difficult.

A poll conducted by the same firm from July 8-13 showed Oxendine with the support of 31 percent of Republican voters surveyed, Handel with 23 percent and Deal with 18 percent.

Both Handel and Deal received endorsements from political heavy-hitters last week, which may have changed the game.

Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon, said his company did a second Republican poll because it noticed Handel picking up steam early last week.

“Handel now is the front-runner and Oxendine is fighting Deal for a spot in the runoff,” Coker said. “The Palin endorsement definitely helped.”

Palin endorsed Handel in a post on Facebook, calling her an underdog and a “pro-life, pro-Constitutionalist with a can-do attitude and a record for fighting for ethics in government.”

Palin’s choices in governors’ races have generally followed the preferred candidates of the Republican Governors Association. The association’s executive director is Nick Ayers, a former aide to Gov. Sonny Perdue who was also Handel’s campaign manager in her successful 2003 bid for Fulton County Commission chairman.

A day after the Palin endorsement, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told a Georgia Chamber of Commerce luncheon that he was backing Deal for governor, calling him “a solid conservative with a solid record.” Gingrich also made a video for the Deal campaign website several months ago.

Carolyn Draper, 67, a retiree from White in Bartow County, is not set in her vote but she has leaned toward Handel. She said Palin’s endorsement is a big deal to her.

“It influences me,” she said. “I am a very conservative person and I have very conservative values and I think Sarah Palin does, too.”

The Deal camp also believes the Gingrich endorsement helped the former congressman’s support grow this week. Robinson said Georgia voters respected and were more likely to be influenced by Gingrich than Palin.

Still, Robinson noted that the Deal camp hoped to be endorsed by Palin later in the race.

Less than a third of voters surveyed Friday said the endorsements by Palin and Gingrich would make them more likely to vote for either Handel or Deal.

Slightly more were affected by the Palin endorsement than the Gingrich endorsement, however. According to the poll, 30 percent of voters said they were more likely to vote for Handel with Palin’s support; 68 percent said the endorsement had no effect and 2 percent said it would make them less likely to support Handel.

Gingrich’s endorsement would make 26 percent of the voters surveyed more likely to vote for Deal; it would not affect 69 percent and it would make 5 percent less likely to vote for the former congressman.

Nina Clark, 56, an insurance underwriter from Lawrenceville, said she’s leaning toward Deal. Clark said she likes what he stands for and what he’s done in Congress. Gingrich’s endorsement of Deal doesn’t hurt, she added.

“I like Newt Gingrich. I think he’s a very smart man and I think he would make an excellent president,” she said. “I like Sarah Palin to a point, and I think Karen Handel is probably a good candidate. But Sarah Palin’s endorsement of anybody probably wouldn’t sway me.”

Robinson said Gingrich was not as polarizing a figure as Palin among Georgia voters.

“We definitely think (the Gingrich endorsement) has given us a shot of adrenaline in these final days,” said Robinson.

The poll showed Deal trailing in head-to-head runoffs with Oxendine and Handel, though nearly a third of voters surveyed said they were unsure how they would vote in such matchups.

Deal trailed Oxendine 39 percent to 33 percent with 28 percent of voters surveyed still unsure; Deal trailed Handel 39 percent to 32 percent, with 29 percent of voters undecided.

“I don’t care what the numbers say today on that, in a runoff in a Georgia Republican primary, the people who turn out are social conservatives, and Karen Handel does not sell with them,” Robinson said. “You might as well be selling ice at the North Pole.”

Ultimately, the poll results were “good news” for Handel, according to Dan McLagan, spokesman for the Handel campaign.

“Deal and Oxendine have spent more than $1 million on negative ads and Georgians have rejected them,” he said. “It must be very frustrating for the good ol’ boys.”

To beat Handel and Oxendine, the Deal campaign seems to be banking on high voter turnout in Deal’s former congressional district and two others surrounding it. Robinson said voters in Hall County particularly would be integral to Deal’s success, urging them to grab “every neighbor, every spouse, every adult child and get them to the polls for Nathan Deal.”

“The 9th District of which Gainesville is the anchor has the highest turnout in the state in early voting and in absentee voting,” said Robinson. “The areas where Nathan does best in this state — the 9th, 10th and 11th districts — all have the highest turnout in the state so far in early voting. This is fantastic news for us.”

Stephen Puetz, Oxendine’s campaign manager, said his candidate was out stumping Saturday “trying to get his message out about bringing jobs back to Georgia. “Four days out the only poll that really matters is election day,” he said.

Robinson encouraged supporters of Oxendine and Johnson to join the Deal campaign. Johnson’s support more than doubled in Mason-Dixon’s second poll, rising from 6 percent to 13 percent in the second.

“You know, Eric Johnson is a good man and a good candidate and he is a conservative. But he is too far back now to make a move,” Robinson said. “Georgia conservatives who know what is happening in this race know that John Oxendine cannot be our nominee because he is unelectable.

“Georgia conservatives need to congeal and rally behind Nathan Deal so that we get the candidate who can beat Roy Barnes on the one hand and assure that our nominee is not a liberal flip-flopper like Karen Handel. That is not what Republicans in this state want.”

Johnson spokesman Ben Fry doesn’t think it’s too late for the Savannah architect, however.

“Ultimately, voters decide elections, not pollsters,” Fry said.

James Salzer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this report as part of the Georgia Newspaper Partnership.