In what increasingly looks like a proxy battle among leading conservatives for the 2012 presidential contest, some of the GOP’s biggest guns are lining up behind opposing candidates in Tuesday’s runoff for the Republican nomination for governor in Georgia.
On paper, the contest pits former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel against former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal. But backing Handel are Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, while Deal has lined up support from Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee.
Handel was endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Palin before the July 20 primary in which she leaped to the front of a crowded field. Deal, meanwhile, had locked down strong endorsements from former House Speaker Gingrich and former Arkansas governor and current TV talk show host Huckabee.
The polls show the race to be pretty even. A recent poll by the Republican firm of Landmark Communications has Deal marginally ahead 44-42. Earlier, the same outfit had Handel up 46-37. Georgia-based Insider Advantage showed a 46-46 tie. A three-day poll by Mason-Dixon released about the same time showed Handel up 47-42.
Deal resigned his House seat to run for governor. Incumbent GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue is prohibited from running for a third consecutive term.
The winner of this contest, which many see as yet another test of Palin’s allure to sway contests, will face former Gov. Roy Barnes, who lost to Perdue in 2002, and who easily won the Democratic primary.
Endorsements in midterms are an important way to build loyalty for presidential elections, especially for a fast-rising star such as Palin, Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, told CNN.
"The more people you help get elected, the larger influence you will have within a party," he said. "I think that's part of the reason why you see Palin endorsing candidates; [Sen. Jim] DeMint endorsing; Mitt Romney and [Minnesota Gov.] Tim Pawlenty contributing to and endorsing candidates."
Handel captured 34 percent of the vote in the July primary while Deal finished second with 23 percent. Since neither won 50 percent, the two were forced into Tuesday's runoff. Former Mass. Romney endorsed Handel after the primary.
On Monday, Palin stumped in Atlanta for Handel, telling the crowd that it's time to end the "good ole boy network that really gets in the way of just doing the things that the people who want to hire a good governor are expecting from their government." Palin’s support shored up Handel’s conservative bonafides, which had been under fire before the Alaskan’s endorsement.
But Gonzales told CNN the notion of conservative versus conservative endorsement is overblown.
"I don't think these races are boiling down to Palin vs. [Sen. Jim] DeMint or Palin vs. Gingrich," he said. "If Deal wins, I don't think you get to say 'Oh, well, it's Gingrich beating Palin.' I think the race is kind of more complex than that.
Many of the candidates Palin has endorsed so far have gone on to win their primary challenge. According to a tally as of early August, 10 Palin-backed candidates have won their respective primaries, six have lost.
Among the big names who have come out on top: Senate candidates Rand Paul in Kentucky and Carly Fiorina in California; gubernatorial candidates Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Terry Branstad in Iowa; House candidates Adam Kinzinger in Illinois and Tim Scott in South Carolina.
Palin's sheen, however, was not enough to save Rep. Todd Tiahrt in his race against Rep. Jerry Moran to become Kansas' next senator. And it put her at odds with top Republicans: DeMint of South Carolina, who is considered a possible 2012 GOP presidential contender, and John McCain, who tapped Palin in 2008 as his running mate.
According to a July Gallup survey, 76 percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of Palin. She is trailed by Huckabee with 65 percent, Newt Gingrich at 64 percent and Mitt Romney coming in with 54 percent.
Palin's persona and rock-star-esque enthusiasm of her supporters has helped her surge with Republicans.
"Palin's a media star. An appearance or endorsement by her guarantees that a candidate dominates the local news and maybe has a shot at national cable," Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez told CNN. "But she appears sparingly and is conscious not to overexpose herself."
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