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Posted: August 3, 2010 3:22 p.m.

Running away from the president

When Sarah Palin endorsed Karen Handel prior to the Republican primary, Handel embraced that support and has been attached at the hip to Palin — figuratively speaking — ever since.

Getting that endorsement from the "mama grizzly" obviously was a factor in Handel taking the number one position among the GOP candidates for governor in the primary. She will try to close the sale when Palin flies to Atlanta on Aug. 9, the day before the runoff election, to appear at a campaign rally with Handel.

Contrast Handel’s behavior to the reaction of the Democratic nominee, Roy Barnes, to a Georgia visit by a nationally known political figure.

As President Barack Obama prepared to make a quick stopover in Atlanta this week, Barnes was making sure everyone knew he would be as far away from the capital city as you could be while still remaining with the geographical confines of Georgia.

Barnes’ campaign manager said the former governor had a prior commitment to be in south Georgia while Obama was here to give a speech and appear at a fundraiser. In other words, there was no way Barnes was going to be anywhere within camera range of the president during this important election year.

Handel ran to Palin, the most popular figure in her party, and will be by her side while Palin is in Georgia. Barnes ran away from Obama, the dominant political figure in his party, and planned to be at least a hundred miles away while the president was in Atlanta.

Which strategy is smarter? Time may prove that Barnes is making the better decision here.

While Obama would obviously help motivate black voters to turn out at the polls this fall, he also is very unpopular in Georgia among moderate and conservative white voters whose support Barnes is trying to get. To have any hopes of hanging on to the votes of Georgia-style independents, Barnes can’t afford to be seen anywhere near Obama.

There is growing evidence that Palin, the former governor of Alaska, has that same kind of polarizing influence on independent voters who are not diehard members of her own party.

Public Policy Polling conducted a survey recently in New Hampshire after Palin endorsed Republican candidate Kelly Ayotte in the U.S. Senate race and found that Ayotte’s support among independent voters was collapsing.

The poll results indicated that among moderate voters, 65 percent said a Palin endorsement would turn them off compared to 14 percent who said it would make them more supportive.

A recent Gallup poll found a similar response to Palin on the national level. Gallup’s survey showed that while Palin enjoyed a 76 percent favorable rating among Republicans, her approval numbers dropped dramatically when independents were added to the mix.

This would suggest that while Palin’s endorsement helps Handel among Republicans voting in her party primary, it might not be such a good thing in a general election where a candidate needs to draw support from independent voters in the middle.

If Handel wins the Republican nomination, she may find that the Palin endorsement has become not a life preserver, but a cement block around her neck.

This scenario assumes that Handel is going to win the Republican runoff, a result that Nathan Deal is working hard to prevent.

Deal does not have the endorsement of Palin in the runoff, but he does have the support of most Republican legislators in the General Assembly. Legislators tend to have a wide network of supporters in their districts, so it can be very helpful to have those networks getting the word out to vote for a particular candidate in an upcoming election.

That was the case in the 1982 Democratic primary, where Congressman Bo Ginn was the early favorite to win. A lawmaker from Bartow County named Joe Frank Harris had House Speaker Tom Murphy and dozens of legislators beating the bushes for him — and it worked. Harris won the Democratic nomination over Ginn.

The upcoming runoff and general elections could well hinge on all of these trends. Can a bunch of Georgia legislators overcome the star power of a Republican celebrity like Sarah Palin? And was it better for Roy Barnes to avoid celebrities like Barack Obama completely?

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

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