By Aaron Gould Sheinin, The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Riding the strength of Sarah Palin’s endorsement and a boatload of votes from metro Atlanta, Karen Handel on Tuesday bolted to the top in the race for the Republican nomination for governor. Nathan Deal finished second and will face Handel in a runoff Aug. 10.
John Oxendine, long the front-runner in the race, saw his candidacy fall down an elevator shaft. The insurance commissioner faded to fourth, finishing behind former state Sen. Eric Johnson. Handel, the former secretary of state, won 33 percent of the vote, and Deal, the former congressman, won 23 percent.
“Nobody believed we could take on the career politicians and the establishment and win,” Handel told ecstatic supporters at about 11 p.m. “But you, you believed. And because you did, we’re standing here tonight and we finished first today.”
Handel’s campaign was certainly elevated by Palin’s endorsement, first delivered via Facebook on July 12 and then in an automated phone call to Republican voters. But Handel herself said she felt the momentum turning two months ago.
Deal had a heavy-hitter endorsement of his own, winning the support of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Now, Handel and Deal will make a final three-week charge to decide the GOP nomination, and all eyes turn to an unusual place: Alaska. Does Palin, the former governor of that faraway state, fly to Georgia to rally — and raise money — for Handel?
Handel said Tuesday she was hopeful that both Palin and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer will come to lend their help. Efforts to reach Palin have been unsuccessful.
On Tuesday, Handel’s strategy of focusing on her home base of Roswell, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta, and Atlanta’s northern exurbs, paid off, while Deal got a boost from portions of his old 9th Congressional District, in the northwestern corner of the state. But Handel was well ahead of the pack even before Fulton County results were in, and she led Deal by 1,000 votes in Forsyth County, one of the largest in the 9th District.
Once Fulton County reported, it was over. Handel, who served on the county commission before becoming secretary of state, was carrying 60 percent of the county’s ballots.
Handel also carried Columbus, Macon and Augusta, as well as many surrounding rural counties. Deal, not surprisingly, did well in north Georgia and led in Athens. Johnson carried counties near his home base in Savannah as well as some rural sections of Georgia. Oxendine carried a smattering of rural counties in the middle of the state and along the Florida border.
Oxendine’s showing in his home county of Gwinnett mirrored his finish statewide: Late Tuesday night, with almost a third of the vote counted in Gwinnett, Oxendine was a distant fourth, with 17 percent of the vote. Handel was leading in the GOP stronghold, with both Johnson and Deal ahead of Oxendine. Oxendine, a statewide official since 1995, conceded at 10:30 p.m.
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