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Star power driving GOP governor's race
Big-name GOP icons weigh with endorsements for Deal, Handel
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Judy Smith, left, of Warner Robins, greets Karen Handel on Saturday at the Sonny Perdue Fish Fry in Perry. - photo by Danny Gilleland

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GNP poll: GOP race tight to the finish

Our Views: Experience counts

Nathan Deal

Age: 67
Home: Gainesville
Education: Mercer University, undergraduate and law degree
Experience: After law school, he joined the Army for two years. Served as district attorney and a judge. From 1981-93, he was as a Democratic state senator. In 1992, he was elected to Congress. In 1995, he switched to the Republican Party. He was elected nine times to the House.
Family status: Deal and his wife, Sandra, have been married more than four decades. They have one son and three daughters.

Karen Handel

Age: 48
Home: Roswell
Education: Graduated from high school in Maryland. Attended Prince Georges Community College and the University of Maryland.
Experience: Worked as deputy chief of staff to Marilyn Quayle; as president/CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce; as deputy chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue. Elected Fulton County Commission chair in 2003 and secretary of state in 2006.
Family status: Handel and her husband, Steve, have been married 18 years. 

In a primary election, the support of a few special interest groups and local politicians usually is enough.

But for two Republicans running for governor in Georgia this year, the campaign has become a game of dueling celebrities.

Both Karen Handel and Nathan Deal, each vying for the Republican nomination in a runoff Tuesday, have the light of conservative superstars shining on their campaigns.

Today, Mike Huckabee, the Arkansas governor-turned presidential candidate-turned television personality, will make an appearance with Deal in Gainesville to help bolster the former U.S. representative's campaign two days before voters head to the polls.

And Monday, it will be Handel with a conservative superstar shining on her campaign as former vice presidential nominee, Alaska governor and current Fox News personality Sarah Palin is expected to attend a rally at a Buckhead hotel.

Handel has also been endorsed by former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has thrown his weight behind Deal.

It has given national attention to a statewide primary that one political scientist calls "surprising."

Rarely does a primary election in Georgia attract so much celebrity attention, said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

Bullock says he doesn't suspect that the endorsements come with completely altruistic intentions, and probably would not have happened if there was a Republican incumbent running for president in 2012.

Romney, Palin, Gingrich and Huckabee have all been mentioned as possible presidential candidates in 2012.
Georgia votes earlier than most states in presidential preference primaries.

A presidential candidate with a friendly governor couldn't hurt, either.

"I'd have to assume that they think this is important in not only helping the candidate but also helping them if they do indeed run for the presidency," said Bullock. "... Georgia will probably vote fairly early ... it's going to be an early state and early states in presidential contests are especially valued."

For Handel and Deal, being used as a political launching pad by presidential hopefuls hasn't hurt a bit.

Both Handel and Deal's last-minute surges in the polls before the July 20 primary were largely attributed to endorsements that came from Palin and Gingrich days before the vote.

And as the runoff nears, both campaigns are hoping personal appearances with their celebrity supporters will drum up last-minute enthusiasm for what usually is an event with weak voter participation.

Huckabee's appearance with Deal at the Gainesville Civic Center will place the 17-year congressman alongside a national figure "often seen on Fox News," said a spokesman for the campaign.

"In the one sense, it brings the campaign a lot of attention," said Brian Robinson, director of communications for the Deal campaign. "And in another sense - in our case - conservative Republicans in Georgia admire and respect Mike Huckabee. He is a known quantity. In fact, he won the presidential primary in Georgia (in 2008), so he's got some juice here."

Handel's spokesman, Dan McLagan, says Palin as Handel's cheerleader in Buckhead Monday, will "lend a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm to the campaign in the final day."

The appearance also has the potential to bring in a slew of new volunteers that will make phone calls on Handel's behalf at the 11th hour.

"It's not just a speech. It's not just an appearance," said McLagan. "... I think it's going to lend a huge amount of energy to the campaign and open up some real grass-roots opportunities."

The appearances will guarantee the two candidates major media coverage in the final hours before the election.

"If the Handel campaign has anything at all to do with (Palin's) scheduling, (the rally) will be in time to make the 6 o'clock news, so it will get good television coverage as well as appearing above the fold in most of the daily papers on election day," Bullock said. "For voters who missed the initial (Palin) endorsement or have forgotten about it, that will certainly bring it back home for them."

Huckabee's appearance with Deal should also get good coverage, Bullock said.

"He is new on the scene here, at least for this gubernatorial contest," Bullock said. "With his television show, coupled with his performance (in the Georgia primary) in 2008 means he also has a following."
National political campaigns often garner this kind of high-profile support.

In 1992 and 2008, during general election runoffs for the Senate, high-profile Republicans, including Palin, came to Georgia to stump for Republicans.

But Bullock can't remember previous gubernatorial candidates bringing out such big guns.

"It's surprising to see these high-profile individuals who are not Georgians become involved in this primary," he said. "Maybe this is the wave of the future. Palin has endorsed a number of candidates around the nation, so maybe we can anticipate that this will come fairly standard that two years out, likely presidential candidates will be jumping in."

Certainly, it won't be that way for Democrats running for office in Georgia.

"The problem that a Democrat has is that most of the big guns of the Democratic Party are well to the left of where a Georgia Democrat is going to be," Bullock said. "And since about the worst thing you can say about a political figure in Georgia right now is that that individual is a liberal, a Georgia Democrat is going to want to be out of town just as former Gov. (Roy) Barnes was down in South Georgia when President Obama was in town."

Whether or not this election ushers in a new wave of statewide campaigning strategies, the magic wand of celebrity endorsements has certainly given candidates something else to bicker about as each has fought to stay out of the shadows of celebrity.

After Palin's July endorsement, Deal touted the endorsements of Georgians who know Georgians, namely Gingrich and a good portion of the Georgia General Assembly.

And when Huckabee steeped into the race on Deal's side, McLagan called it a celebrity blessing meant to "match" the Palin endorsement.

"I think the Deal folks were trying very hard to find someone who could even remotely match her star power," McLagan said. "I know they were pushing very, very hard and it took them a long time to convince Gov. Huckabee to come and join them. And that's great, he's a good man, a good endorsement."

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