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Deal 'cautiously optimistic' slim lead will hold
Race still too close to call; recount is possible
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Nathan Deal and granddaughter Fallin Deal, 10, greet visitors Tuesday evening at his campaign headquarters at the Gainesville Civic Center.

So much depends upon a few thousand votes.

Nathan Deal and Karen Handel still don't know who will advance as the Republican nominee in Georgia's governor's race -- and it could be next week before it is all sorted out.

With 99 percent of the votes counted across the state, Deal had some 2,489 votes more than Handel on Tuesday night, meaning the nomination may depend upon a recount of more than 579,000 votes cast across the state.

The winner between the two will continue campaigning for November's general election, facing former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and Libertarian John Monds.

On Tuesday, Handel, Georgia's former secretary of state, fell short only four-tenths of a percentage point from Deal's razor-thin lead of 50.2 percent of the vote.

Elections officials across the state continued to count provisional and absentee ballots.

Early Wednesday morning, the Deal campaign issued a statement saying the former congressmen believed he had enough votes to win the runoff and "remind Georgians of why they fired Roy Barnes in the first place."

"We're confident the margin of victory is large enough to ensure that Nathan Deal will be the Republican nominee to be the governor of Georgia," said spokesman Brian Robinson.

Deal showed the same confidence during a round of interviews on Atlanta TV stations Wednesday morning.

Handel, too, remained optimistic, saying the race would hinge upon the state's absentee
ballots.

"We are in this fight," Handel told a crowd gathered at an Atlanta hotel. "Let's keep the faith, stay optimistic and party on."

Deal finished the July primary with 22.9 percent of the vote, some 11 percentage points behind Handel, who also led polls, if only slightly, during the weeks leading up to the runoff.

The former congressman from Gainesville attributed his last-minute success to grabbing support from voters who had voted for losing candidates in July and others, who were "falling away" from Handel's campaign.

"It's a combination of a lot of different things," Deal said. "Momentum is a strange thing. When it's going your way, you're very fortunate to have it go your way, and we feel like it did go our way."

Deal's supporters waited more than four hours in a ballroom at the Gainesville Civic Center, anxiously watching returns projected on a screen.

Early in the night, the crowd cheered often and with good reason. While state officials waited on returns from Cobb, Forsyth and Gwinnett, some of the state's most populous counties, Deal had about 51 percent of the vote.

But as returns from those clutch counties came in, Handel began to close in on Deal's lead.

The cheering in Gainesville slowed, giving way to nail biting.

"Folks, it's close," said Harris Blackwood, Deal's director of video communications, and the watch party's unofficial cheerleader. "Ohhhh, it's close."

A possible recount could extend into next week.

Georgia law allows the runner-up to request a recount if the margin is less than 1 percent of the total vote.

Also today, counties across the state will count their provisional ballots and work toward certifying results.

Fulton County, the state's most voter-dense county, will not certify until Saturday.

Once all 159 counties certify their results, they will turn them into the secretary of state's elections division, which will then certify the election. Candidates have 48 hours after certification to ask for a recount.

But with no one to say officially, Handel still held on in front of her supporters. Sounding tired, but hopeful, Handel urged her several hundred supporters at a Buckhead hotel to do the same.

"What an incredible, incredible night," she said. "I came down here to say thank you. You've been following all the numbers. I think it's going to be a little bit longer."

How each candidate felt about the results may be deciphered in appearances they plan to make this morning.

Handel spokesman Dan McLagan said his candidate would skip the traditional morning-after round of television interviews and will not attend a Republican "unity breakfast" scheduled for 7:30 a.m. in Buckhead.

Deal said he would come to Atlanta for both.

"I am optimistically expecting that we will see these numbers hold," Deal told reporters.

The Associated Press and Aaron Gould Sheinin of the AJC contributed to this report. 

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