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Anatomy of an election: How Deal made the runoff
A look at how former U.S. Rep. made governor's race runoff and what he needs to do to beat Handel
Nathan and Sandra Deal approach a waiting crowd Monday afternoon at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville after returning from a campaign trip across the state before Tuesdays primary election. Deal now faces Karen Handel in an Aug. 10 runoff for the Republican nomination for governor.

Nathan Deal wasn't ever guaranteed a spot in the runoff election.

For months leading up to Tuesday's primary election, the former 9th District U.S. House representative barely budged from a spot in third place among Republican candidates seeking the governor's mansion.

The state's insurance commissioner, John Oxendine, held tightly to the top seed in the race, holding a sizeable lead in the polls over former Secretary of State Karen Handel and Deal up until what seemed to be minutes before the polls opened Tuesday.

When the polls closed, it was Handel who had the most Republican votes, Deal who had snagged the second most and Oxendine, at fourth, was far behind.

On Tuesday, Deal attributed his ability to move on to the second round to his persistence.

"We never gave up," Deal said.

As allegations of congressional ethics violations first surfaced last fall, and were later given more validity in late March, Deal seemed to be on rocky footing on the gubernatorial campaign trail.

A report from the Office of Congressional Ethics shortly after Deal resigned from the U.S. House said Deal may have violated six House ethics rules by earning too much outside income and by lobbying state officials to protect his Gainesville-based auto-salvage business, Gainesville Salvage Disposal.

Deal's resignation from Congress precluded any further investigation into whether he actually violated those rules. Deal denied any wrongdoing, and claimed the decision to release the report a week after his resignation was politically motivated.

"I have done nothing wrong," Deal said then. "I think this report shows I have done nothing wrong. ... No one is going to coerce me out of this race."

And success seemed even less secure when, not long after the report was released, Deal's former congressional colleague and champion in Deal's gubernatorial bid, Rep. Tom Price, switched his allegiance to Handel.

Four months later, with the endorsements of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and many of his other congressional colleagues, Deal landed in second place behind Handel in a primary with no clear winner.

"We think we converted a lot of folks by face-to-face politicking," Deal said.

In a party primary, where Deal faced six opponents with the same party identification, his 17 years representing the state's northern counties came in handy, said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

"Getting people who come from your county or neighboring counties to support you gives you a base that you can try to build out from," Bullock said. "... It's good to have a geographic area that you can begin with."

The results from Tuesday showed Deal's efforts at "friends and neighbors politics" were just enough support to give him a second chance at Handel, who ended up with 231,724 votes — a nearly 76,000 vote lead over Deal — across the state and a tight grip on metro Atlanta.

Deal held his own in and around the 9th District, except in one of the district's largest counties —- Forsyth — where Handel garnered nearly 1,000 more votes than the county's former congressman.

On the day before the election, Deal acknowledged he'd never approached a campaign of this magnitude. For 17 years as a U.S. representative, Deal only had the voters of 15 counties to woo every two years.

"One of the challenges he faces now is to build out from that as he gets ready for the runoff," said Bullock. "... As a member of the congressional delegation, he represented one-13th of Georgia."

For the last year, he's been faced with more than 10 times that number of counties and the challenge of breaking out of the mountains and into metro Atlanta, where most of the votes are and many of his Republican counterparts were already well-known.

"The 9th District, of course, is smaller counties that have a lot in common being part of the mountain region of our state with more commonality of interests," Deal said in an interview Monday. "When you get into the metro area, in particular, you know people's interests, what they do and the things that they're concerned about are somewhat different many times in the more outlying parts of the state."

Appealing to those concerns was certainly part of the challenge, Deal said.

In the beginning, Deal focused on issues he'd championed in Congress, like tighter immigration rules.

But in the final days, and as Deal toured the state in one final attempt to grab media attention Monday, he had a simpler message that he didn't stray far from: He was the race's "true conservative" who could beat Democratic nominee Roy Barnes in November.

Getting his name and his face on the television screens of voters in the state's largest media markets late in the campaign helped Deal appeal to voters outside his 9th District comfort zone, Bullock said.

"People heard his message, they were able to connect a face with a name," Bullock said. "So that probably also helped."

And while his name recognition didn't match that of Oxendine or Handel, Deal got a little help spreading that message from his friends. South of the 9th District, local political heavy hitters stood alongside Deal in areas where voters might not recognize him.

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."

It was just enough to give him a second chance at the Republican nomination.

"We've just had people come to us and wanted to help us," Deal said. "And that's been the best part about it."