ATLANTA — Sarah Palin handed Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Karen Handel her conservative seal of approval on Monday in a tight Republican runoff, saying Handel would “fight like a mama grizzly” and help usher out the state’s “good ol’ boy network.”
The former Alaska governor swept into Atlanta to stump for Handel on the eve of the runoff election Tuesday against former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, who was campaigning on Monday in six cities throughout the state before returning home to Gainesville. The winner will face Democrat Roy Barnes in the November general election.
“Are you ready to elect a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, commonsense constitutional conservative, who will fight like a mama grizzly for you and the values that you hold dear?” Palin asked a cheering crowd in a hotel ballroom.
Palin called the Georgia campaign “epic” and said Handel — who has made ethics a centerpiece of her bid — would prove there’s a better way to lead.
“The eyes of the nation are on you Georgia, to see if you get rid of that good ol’ boy network,” Palin said. “People are watching what’s going on in Georgia.”
Handel is running to become Georgia’s first female governor.
At a stop in Savannah, Deal took a swipe at the glitzy Palin event.
“I think people in the greater Savannah region are hopefully going to appreciate the fact that Nathan Deal is in Savannah at the airport and not at a four-star hotel in Buckhead,” he said.
On Sunday, former Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee headlined a rally for Deal at the Gainesville Civic Center. Huckabee won Georgia’s GOP presidential primary in 2008 with strong support from the state’s evangelical voters.
Palin’s endorsement in the primary campaign was widely credited with catapulting Handel into a first-place finish among seven GOP gubernatorial candidates. But Handel missed the mark of 50 percent plus one vote, triggering a runoff against Deal as the second-place finisher.
The Handel camp was betting Palin’s appearance at the 40-minute rally Monday would whip up enthusiasm and remind voters to turn out again Tuesday.
Palin said she and Handel have both been underestimated throughout their careers and have run as reformers.
Handel left home at age 17 after she says her alcoholic mother pointed a shotgun at her, and she has spoken openly about her struggle to earn a college degree. She left after earning only a few credits and went on to work in the White House for Marilyn Quayle, without earning a degree.
Palin on Monday called Handel, who stepped down as Georgia’s secretary of state to run for governor, “a self-made, strong woman who pulled herself up by her bootstraps.”
“She left a tough home situation and got a good education. She didn’t blame her circumstances. She worked hard to get where she is today,” Palin said.
Palin and Handel entered the hotel ballroom to the strains of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and chants of “Sa-rah!”
Palin was joined onstage by her husband, Todd, and two of her children, Trigg and Willow.
Handel has faced questions throughout the race for being too liberal on issues like abortion. One attack from the state’s largest anti-abortion group, Georgia Right to Life, took aim at Palin. Melanie Crozier, director of the group’s political action committee, said that “under Karen Handel’s laws, Handel would have felt like it was OK to go in and abort” Palin’s young son Trig, who has Down syndrome.
On Monday, Palin called that statement “disgusting” and suggested it helped cement her decision to stump for Handel.
“You want to get me to leave the commercial fishing grounds (in Alaska) and fly all the way across the country, across four time zones to defend a candidate’s position?” she asked to loud cheers.
Handel opposes abortion but believes in exceptions for cases of rape and incest or when the life of the mother is at risk.
The Associated Press Greg Bluestein in Atlanta and Russ Bynum in Savannah contributed to this report.