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Posted: July 28, 2010 12:00 a.m.

The Ox is gored

When they fall, they fall fast.

That will have to serve as the final word on the surprising end of the political career of Insurance Commissioner John "The Ox" Oxendine.

Ask people who have been watching Georgia politics for a while, as I did after last Tuesday’s results, and they’ll tell you the same thing: they’ve never seen a campaign collapse as quickly as Oxendine’s did in the last two weeks before the primary election.

Oxendine was the leader in every survey of likely Republican voters for more than year. He raised more money than any of his primary opponents. Karen Handel, Nathan Deal and Eric Johnson for months tried to get traction in the polls and catch Oxendine but did not seem to be getting anywhere.

Oxendine knew how to run a statewide campaign, having won four of them since 1994. In two of those elections, he received more total votes than any other candidate running for statewide office. More people voted for the Ox in 2002 and 2006 than for statewide winners like Sonny Perdue, Saxby Chambliss, Tommy Irvin, and Cathy Cox.

He was the kind of candidate you’d call a Teflon politician. In the years since Oxendine was first elected insurance commissioner in 1994, the state’s newspaper and TV outlets had produced dozens — maybe hundreds — of articles about the various allegations of misconduct lodged against him. None of it ever seemed to stick.

The Oxendine files included two crashes of state-owned vehicles, improper use of an emergency "blue light" flasher on his car, questionable contributions from people in the industry he regulated, free trips to Hollywood from persons who wanted a favorable decision from him as insurance commissioner.

None of these media reports appeared to hurt his standing among Georgia’s voters. Oxendine kept getting reelected without major opposition and was the clear frontrunner during much of this year’s GOP primary.

After 16 years, however, it all seemed to catch with him at the end. During the final two weeks of the primary campaign, the period when voters actually start paying attention and make up their minds about races, many Republicans clearly decided they’d had enough of the Ox.

Maybe it was the cumulative effect of all those media reports about Oxendine’s alleged misdeeds. Maybe it was the fact that some people who watched his TV commercials were turned off by his squeaky voice.

Whatever the reason, about half of those who had been indicating in early polls that they would vote for Oxendine deserted him when the race was on the line. He ended up a weak fourth-place finisher with 17 percent of the vote. It was an amazing crash and burn.

Republicans are left with a choice in the runoff between Handel, the former secretary of state, and Deal, a 17-year member of Congress from Gainesville.

Handel ran first in the primary. She has the backing of much of the Republican Party establishment and benefited greatly in the primary by securing the celebrity endorsement of Sarah Palin.

Handel also has deep connections to the outgoing governor, Sonny Perdue. She was an aide to Perdue at one time and her campaign for the Fulton County Commission in 2003 was run by Perdue protégé Nick Ayers. Perdue’s media spokesman, Dan McLagan, is the mouthpiece for the Handel campaign. Dick Anderson, who was appointed by Perdue as director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, is also working in Handel’s campaign.

Deal has a strong base of support in North Georgia from the years he represented Hall County in the state Senate and the U.S. House, and he carried a swatch of counties along Georgia’s northern border in the primary.

To catch Handel in the runoff, Deal would have to expand that base and somehow break down her support in the urban areas where she ran strongest: Metro Atlanta, Augusta, Macon, Columbus and Valdosta. He will also have to hope that Georgia Right to Life, the anti-abortion group that opposes Handel, has enough clout among Republican voters to bring Deal home to victory.

It will be a closely watched runoff campaign, one that is all the more remarkable because of the man who will not be part of it: John Oxendine.

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

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