He can't vote in Georgia, but Mike Huckabee told supporters at a Gainesville campaign rally Sunday that if he could, he would cast a ballot for Nathan Deal.
With two days left until Republican voters decide between Deal and former Secretary of State Karen Handel, the former Arkansas governor spoke on Deal's behalf in front of hundreds of the Republican gubernatorial candidate's supporters at the Gainesville Civic Center.
Huckabee, who won Georgia presidential primary in 2008, called Deal a candidate with authentic convictions, praised his stance against abortion and touted Deal's endorsement by the National Rifle Association, a group Huckabee called "politically pure."
"There is no one who has been standing taller for things that matter to us than Nathan Deal," Huckabee said.
A poll released Sunday commissioned by the Georgia Newspaper Partnership showed Handel with a slight lead over Deal in the race for Georgia's governor's mansion, 47 percent to 42 percent.
In the final days before Tuesday's runoff, both candidates are bringing high-profile Republicans to the state to help them rally support. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is appearing with Secretary of State Karen Handel at a Buckhead hotel today.
Some supporters at the rally said they hoped Huckabee's visit to Georgia would give Deal an edge over Handel.
Deal, who worked with Huckabee while in Congress when the former Arkansas governor came to Washington with the National Governors Association looking for Medicaid reform, said he wanted an endorsement from someone who knew him.
Huckabee said Deal, as chairman of the health subcommittee, spent hours with him hammering out the changes the governors asked for at the time.
"This is a person that's not just somebody from outside who's endorsing a candidate for governor of Georgia who doesn't know who they are," said Deal. "I'm going to tell you, Mike knows who I am."
Many of those at the rally said they had been longtime supporters of Deal. Some said they grew up with his children. Others were relatives.
Christel Mahler-Wolf, a 46-year-old business owner from Gainesville, said she appreciated the way Deal kept her informed through newsletters and town hall meetings during his 17-year tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"I always liked him as a person and as my congressman," she said.
Holly Coleman, a physician, said she knew Deal since she was a child, calling him a "genuine" man who took a stand against recent federal health care legislation.
Coleman hoped Huckabee's appearance with Deal would influence voters. So did Bill Crowell, the father of Deal's daughter-in-law Denise Deal, who stood near Coleman in the crowd.
"I'm hoping it kicks him over the edge," Crowell said.
Standing alongside Deal, Huckabee encouraged supporters to make calls on Deal's behalf and to take others to the polls to vote for the former congressman. He joked that they should let the air out of the tires of people who planned to vote for other candidates.
"I cannot believe that the same Georgia that was smart enough to give me your confidence (in the 2008 primary) wouldn't be smart enough to make sure that their next governor is named Nathan Deal," Huckabee said.
Speaking with reporters after the rally, Huckabee steered clear of any direct attacks against Handel or Palin, and he said he didn't see his appearance as an unofficial contest between him and Palin before the 2012 presidential election.
"It has nothing to do with Sarah Palin or even the congressman's opponent," Huckabee said. "I'm here because I've watched this guy work. I've worked with him. I'm grateful. I'm indebted."
Before Deal and Huckabee arrived, state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, gave a speech that, at times, bordered on Sunday sermon.
Miller said he has known Deal for 27 years. He called Deal a man with a servant's heart and urged those at the rally to show up at the polls on Tuesday for Deal.
"I want a better Georgia for my children. Amen," said Miller. "I want a better Georgia for my grandchildren. I want a better Georgia for my aging parents. I've got commitments in my life. I've got commitments in my life and you've got commitments in yours, and we've got to vote. We've got to leave this place a better place than we found it."
Miller introduced Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, who flew to the event in a helicopter with Deal and Huckabee.
Jones is the highest-ranking woman in the state legislature and the first woman to serve as speaker pro tempore in the state House of Representatives.
"I don't need somebody coming here from Alaska telling me how to vote," Miller said, referencing Palin's visit to Atlanta on Handel's behalf. "I don't need it."
Jones, who later introduced Deal, told the crowd that "nearly every one" of the conservative female leaders she knew in the state legislature were voting for Deal on Tuesday in spite of the possibility of heralding in Georgia's first female governor.
"This race is not about gender," she said. "In fact, it's really not about geography. It's about all of Georgia. This race isn't about whether the governor carries a pocketbook. It's about strength of character, vision, leadership. It's about who is the most qualified to keep Georgia moving forward."