Lugging a travel coffee mug and a biscuit wrapped in aluminum foil, Nathan Deal boarded a plane shortly after 7 a.m. Monday with his wife Sandra before the sun had a chance to burn off the morning fog.
Minutes later, the couple stepped off the plane, breakfast finished, to face television cameras and 15 cheering supporters at DeKalb Peachtree Airport.
It was the beginning of a long day.
Today, Georgia voters have their last chance to choose a nominee — or at least decide which two candidates will go head-to-head in an August runoff — in both the Republican and Democratic parties’ pursuit of the governor’s mansion.
In the final 24 hours, Deal, like other candidates for the state’s top job, took to the skies Monday, visiting some of the state’s most far-reaching media markets and others, where the former Gainesville congressman was surrounded by more family than news cameras.
Everywhere he went, Deal repeated the mantra he’s held onto in this last stretch of the campaign, calling himself more conservative than former Secretary of State Karen Handel and a better opponent for the assumed Democratic nominee than the state’s commissioner of insurance.
Both are assumed to be his top rivals in today’s election, though a poll released Monday by Insider Advantage showed former state Sen. Eric Johnson creeping ahead of Oxendine.
“Roy Barnes will have a field day if John Oxendine is the nominee,” the former congressman from Gainesville told reporters in Atlanta.
Handel, Johnson and former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, also spent the day stopping at airports across the state in an effort to drum up last-minute support.
Local political heavy hitters stood alongside Deal in area’s where voters might not recognize him.
In Dalton, Deal was flanked by state Sen. Jeff Mullis. In Augusta, he was met by a slew of local leaders and introduced by state Sen. Bill Jackson. And in Columbus, U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland called Deal a friend who handled issues with a “judicial manner.”
“He’s the only one that I know of that is the principled leader that we need,” Westmoreland said. “I’d go off a little bit sometimes in D.C. ... and Nathan was always the calm voice that brought me back to reality and said, ‘Lynn, let’s think about this and let’s think about that.’”
The Columbus stop was the first of the day outside of Deal’s congressional comfort zone. Reporters waiting for him at the airport were mostly interested in what Deal had to offer the middle West Georgia constituency.
The Columbus Airport would see at least three more candidates by the day’s end. But Brian Robinson, Deal’s director of communications, felt Westmoreland’s appearance with Deal bolstered Deal’s conservative street credit with area Republicans.
In Augusta, Deal addressed about 40 people in a small room at the airport before flying to Statesboro where there was one local journalist and a room full of cousins. Here, Deal’s arrival wasn’t meant so much for the media, and the delivery was more personal.
“Nathan must have a zillion cousins in Statesboro,” Thelma Kilpatrick, Deal’s first cousin on his mother’s side, said.
But a stop in Savannah, an area where Johnson reigns in the Republican race for governor, managed to draw one news camera and only a few campaign supporters.
One of them, Christopher Rawlins, vice president of sales for local warehousing business Ocean Link Inc., came to hear Deal’s plans for the city’s port. His is a cottage industry that relies on the port’s survival.
Rawlins was glad to hear Deal say he’d work to deepen the harbor.
“That river has to be deepened or Savannah’s going to turn into a ghost town ...,” Rawlins said.
As in Savannah, Deal slightly tailored his message to the perceived needs of voters at each stop, focusing on agriculture in Albany and manufacturing in Dalton.
And in each city, Deal saw varied support and interest in his arrival. At the end of the day, Deal’s return home was almost triumphant as his plane landed to about 100 people chanting “Nathan! Nathan! Nathan!”
The reception in Gainesville came 11 hours after Deal left Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport to tour the state. And as he addressed his biggest crowd of the day, Deal paused to stave off tears.
“I could not have picked — could not have picked a better place to live, could not have picked a better place to have friends,” Deal told his hometown crowd.
But everywhere Deal went, the campaign kept its core message the same.
“Nathan’s a conservative and he can win (in November),” said Robinson, the communications director for Deal’s campaign. “That’s our message today.”