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Posted: July 14, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Georgia voters will conduct the final poll

The race for governor has been a very stable one so far, at least if you believe in the validity of the polls.

For more than a year now, every credible poll has indicated that Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine is at the top of the list of Republican candidates while former governor Roy Barnes has been the choice of Democratic voters.

Oxendine was expected to be the early poll leader among GOP voters because of the name recognition he built up from serving 16 years as a statewide elected official. The Ox has maintained that lead, although it has been eroding a bit, and he appears to have the solid support of roughly one-third of those who will ask for a Republican primary ballot on July 20.

The real competition has been among the three candidates fighting to make it into a runoff with Oxendine: former secretary of state Karen Handel of Roswell, former congressman Nathan Deal of Gainesville, and former state senator Eric Johnson of Savannah.

The most recent polling suggests that Handel may be pulling away from Deal and Johnson in that fight for a runoff slot, but there are enough undecided voters (anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the total) who could give us a different result on election day.

Oxendine has tried to frame this primary race as a battle between himself and a Republican Party establishment, headed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, that is trying to engineer the nomination of Handel, who once worked as an aide to Perdue.

The accusations surfaced recently when the State Ethics Commission tried to hold a hearing into allegations that two Georgia insurance companies regulated by Oxendine's office funneled $120,000 to the Oxendine campaign through a network of political action committees based in Alabama.

Lawyers for the insurance companies went to court to block the ethics hearing, where they complained to a Fulton County judge that a majority of the commission's members were appointed by Perdue.

"In that kind of politically charged environment, there is no fairness, there is no level playing field," attorney Daniel Meachum said. "The commission has lost its moral compass and become a conduit for certain political candidates."

The court challenge was successful for Oxendine, because it prevented the Ethics Commission from holding a hearing prior to the primary election.
Over on the Democratic side, Barnes has been trying to achieve two goals in his campaign: apologizing to voters for the mistakes that caused his defeat in the 2002 governor's race and building up a big enough lead that he could win the primary without a runoff.

While there are three credible candidates running against Barnes, this primary comes down to a race between the former governor and Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

In terms of financial resources, it isn't even close. Even in a dry year for campaign fundraising, Barnes has pulled in nearly $5 million during this election cycle, far more than any other Democratic or Republican candidate.

He has spent the bulk of that money on TV commercials aimed at putting him above the 50 percent support level that would win the nomination without a runoff. Since April, Barnes has paid more than $2.1 million to LUC Media - a media buying firm founded by his longtime adviser and strategist, Bobby Kahn - to purchase the airtime for running all these TV spots.

If Barnes wins the primary outright, he avoids a bruising runoff fight against Baker that would drain money Barnes could otherwise have spent running against the Republican nominee in the general election.

If Baker forces a runoff election and then upsets Barnes for the Democratic nomination, he would virtually ensure that the Republican nominee, whoever it is, will win the general election in November. That's why Republican activists will be watching the results of this primary very closely on election night.

Two independent polls of likely Democratic voters that were released late last week showed Barnes receiving 56 percent and 59 percent of the vote in this primary. A third poll commissioned by a Baker supporter showed Barnes at the 49 percent level.

Georgia's voters, of course, will tell us next week how accurate all of those polls were. The election day poll is the only one that matters.

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

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