Georgia's bruising Republican primary runoff for governor had no winner Wednesday as some 2,500 votes separated the two candidates, leaving the race too close to call and a re-count likely.
In unofficial returns, Nathan Deal and Karen Handel each claimed 50 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Deal did hold a slim lead with an unknown number of provisional, overseas and military ballots yet to be counted. Under Georgia law, the runner-up can request a re-count if the margin is less than 1 percent.
If the more than a half-million ballots cast Tuesday are recounted, it could be at least next week before a GOP nominee is selected.
Both candidates have high-profile Republicans in their corner.
Handel had been the presumed front runner. She catapulted to the top of the seven-person GOP field in the July 20 primary — outpacing Deal by 11 percentage points. An endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped. Palin flew across four time zones on Monday to stump for Handel in Atlanta in a rally designed to lift the former secretary of state across the finish line.
But Deal battled back from ethics allegations and staged a late surge, patching together support from rural parts of the state that appeared to embrace his staunchly conservative views and 18-year record in Congress. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is a possible presidential contender, was on Deal's side.
Since no candidate in the primary grabbed 50 percent plus one vote, the top two, Handel and Deal, met in a runoff.
The winner will face Democrat Roy Barnes in November.
As the two battled across the state for their party's nomination, Deal cast Handel as too liberal and suggested her lack of a college degree sent the wrong message to Georgia students.
Meanwhile, Handel repeatedly assailed Deal's ethics and labeled him "a corrupt relic of Washington." During a televised debate, Handel called on Deal to stop "squealing" about negative attacks and put on "big boy pants."
The 48-year-old Handel has cast herself as a fiery outsider, and Deal, 67, has played the role of steady, consensus builder with backing from many Republican members of the state Legislature.
A smiling Deal told supporters in Gainesville that he's "encouraged by the numbers and we hope they will hold."
Handel refused to concede saying, "we are in this fight," she said. "Let's keep the faith, stay optimistic and party on."
Barnes is already running ads for the general election and said he will run his own race regardless of the Republican outcome.
"I'm going to be laying out the comparisons and contrasts in this race based on issues not personalities," Barnes said.
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta and Errin Haines in Gainesville contributed to this report.
Nathan Deal for Governor: http://www.nathandeal.org
Karen Handel for Governor: http://www.karenhandel.com
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