Bolstered by an endorsement from conservative superstar Sarah Palin, former Secretary of State Karen Handel appears to have surged into the lead of the Republican race for governor, according to a new statewide poll conducted for the Georgia Newspaper Partnership.
The poll of 400 likely Republican primary voters taken Thursday and Friday put Handel in first place with 29 percent of Georgians polled saying she would get their vote. That’s up 6 percentage points from an earlier poll that was partially taken before Palin’s endorsement on Monday.
The change has left previous front-runner, state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine in second place with 22 percent and former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal at 20 percent.
Of Republicans polled, another 13 percent said they support former state Senate leader Eric Johnson, and 13 percent were undecided. Other candidates received 3 percent.
Voters head to the polls Tuesday for the Republican and Democratic primaries. In Georgia, runoffs are necessary if no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the primary. A runoff between the top two voter-getters was always expected in the crowded Republican gubernatorial race.
The results of the new Mason-Dixon Polling & Research poll showed a shift from a poll the company released Wednesday. That sampling was taken July 8 through July 13.
The earlier poll had Oxendine the leader with 31 percent of the vote, followed by Handel with 23 percent, Deal with 18 percent and Johnson at 6 percent. On the Democratic side, the poll gave former Gov. Roy Barnes a commanding lead and indicated he could win the primary without a runoff.
Mason-Dixon conducted both polls for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and 12 other Georgia newspapers. Both have a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, said his company did a second Republican poll because it noticed Handel picking up steam early last week.
Coker said, “Handel now is the front-runner and Oxendine is fighting Deal for a spot in the runoff. The Palin endorsement definitely helped.”
Palin, the former GOP vice-presidential nominee, has endorsed Republicans around the nation, helping candidates in South Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and New Mexico win tough primaries.
Palin endorsed Handel in a post on Facebook, calling her an underdog and a “pro-life, pro-Constitutionalist with a can-do attitude and a record for fighting for ethics in government.”
Palin’s choices in governors’ races have generally followed the preferred candidates of the Republican Governors Association. The association’s executive director is Nick Ayers, a former aide to Gov. Sonny Perdue who was also Handel’s campaign manager in her successful 2003 bid for Fulton County Commission chairman.
Handel could also get some financial benefit from the endorsement, since Palin’s political action committee has donated $87,000 to GOP candidates.
Coker said Deal also got a boost from an endorsement last week when he received the backing of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
In the new poll, 30 percent of respondents said they were more likely to back Handel because of the Palin endorsement. Two percent said they were less likely, and 68 percent said it didn’t matter.
On the Gingrich endorsement, 26 percent said it made them more likely to support Deal. Five percent said it made them less likely to support him, and 69 percent said it didn’t matter.
Carolyn Draper, 67, a retiree from White in Bartow County, is not set in her vote but said she has leaned toward Handel. She said Palin’s endorsement is a big deal to her.
“It influences me,” she said. “I am a very conservative person and I have very conservative values and I think Sarah Palin does too.”
Brunswick landscape contractor Powell Noble, 52, said he trusts Palin’s judgment.
“What I hear out of Sarah Palin is straight talk. I think anyone Sarah Palin endorses is worth putting in government,’’ he said.
Nina Clark, 56, an insurance underwriter from Lawrenceville, said she’s leaning toward Deal. Clark said she likes what he stands for and what he’s done in Congress. Gingrich’s endorsement of Deal doesn’t hurt, she added.
“I like Newt Gingrich. I think he’s a very smart man and I think he would make an excellent president,” she said. “I like Sarah Palin to a point, and I think Karen Handel is probably a good candidate. But Sarah Palin’s endorsement of anybody probably wouldn’t sway me.”
Dan McLagan, spokesman for the Handel campaign, called the new poll results “good news” for his candidate.
“Deal and Oxendine have spent more than $1 million on negative ads and Georgians have rejected them,” he said. “It must be very frustrating for the good ol’ boys.”
Stephen Puetz, Oxendine’s campaign manager, said his candidate was out stumping Saturday “trying to get his message out about bringing jobs back to Georgia. “Four days out the only poll that really matters is election day,” he said.
Brian Robinson, spokesman for Deal’s campaign, called the poll “an accurate snapshot of what’s going on going into the weekend.
“Handel has courted the liberal and moderate wing of the party, and that is not what turns out in the primary,” he said. “Conservatives who want a conservative to beat the liberal Karen Handel need to come over to Nathan now.”
Johnson’s numbers have improved, but Coker doesn’t expect him to gain enough between now and Tuesday to make the runoff. Johnson spokesman Ben Fry disagrees.
“Ultimately, voters decide elections, not pollsters,” Fry said.