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Posted: June 9, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Can Barnes or Oxendine be stopped?

John Oxendine and Roy Barnes have been consistent leaders in their respective primaries in the race for governor. With the July 20 primary only six weeks away, can they keep their leads and secure the nominations?

Barnes is the easy call right now in the Democratic primary. The former governor has maintained a strong lead in all the early polls, even if not so far ahead that he might win it on July 20. He also has been able to raise more money than any other candidate, Democratic or Republican.

There was one recent poll that claimed Barnes had the support of 64 percent of likely Democratic voters, but that does not sound plausible. Most of the other polls have Barnes a few points below 50 percent, and his key supporters are careful to say they think he will be pushed into a runoff election.

The other Democrats are experienced candidates who have won many races in their political careers: Attorney General Thurbert Baker, veteran legislator DuBose Porter, and retired adjutant general David Poythress. You wonder why some of them did not run in other statewide races where they would have had a more realistic shot at winning.

On the Republican side, the race is a little more competitive.

Oxendine hired some new consultants last spring and has run a more disciplined campaign in recent weeks, avoiding public disputes and acting like a frontrunner. The conventional wisdom last year was that Oxendine would "implode" at some point and his campaign would collapse, but that hasn't happened.

"He's realized that this is a marathon, not a sprint," said a campaign consultant.

One issue hanging over the Oxendine campaign is the $120,000 that a few insurance companies sent to him last year through a series of political action committees based in Alabama. The State Ethics Commission scheduled a June 24 hearing on those disputed contributions, which is less than four weeks before election day. If the hearing is not postponed, it may do some damage to the Oxendine campaign and provide a boost for his competitors.

Former congressman Nathan Deal has survived unfavorable publicity and a House ethics committee scolding over an auto salvage business he owns that did business for years with the state. While he still trails Oxendine among Republican voters, a recent poll showed Deal running slightly better against Barnes in a general election matchup than any of the other GOP contenders.

Former secretary of state Karen Handel runs neck-and-neck with Deal in the fight for second place and a spot in the GOP runoff, but she still has had her problems with fundraising.

Handel was in the news over the past week because of a disagreement with Georgia Right to Life, the state's leading anti-abortion organization. Her more moderate position on abortion could help Handel in a general election campaign against the Democratic nominee, but it could cause her problems among the more conservative voters who dominate the Republican primary.

Former state senator Eric Johnson has raised more money in this primary than anybody but Oxendine and is considered by some to be the toughest opponent the Republicans could field against Roy Barnes. I've heard variations of this statement from several political observers: "Barnes maybe can beat Oxendine or Handel, but he couldn't beat Johnson."

Johnson's problem is that he still can't break out of the single digits in the early polls of likely Republican voters.

With such a crowded Republican primary field - there are seven candidates in all - you would expect them to have started attacking each other with negative TV ads by now, but that has not been the case.

Money is scarce in this recession year and candidates are having to hold back on their barrage of TV commercials until election day gets closer. You can look for hard-hitting attack ads to start airing in the final two weeks before July 20.

There also appear to be a lot of Republican voters who simply haven't made up their minds yet - as many as one-third of those polled in recent surveys are still in the undecided column.

Barnes and Oxendine, for now, remain the frontrunners in their primaries. If somebody hopes to knock either of them off, there isn't much time left.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report. He can be reached at tcrawford@capitolimpact.net.

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