WARNER ROBINS, Ga.–The good people of Houston County didn’t get to see two of the four leading GOP candidates for governor in a debate here Thursday night. But they did get to see the two best.
One of them, Karen Handel, is the surest bet right now to win a spot Tuesday in a runoff for the Republican nomination. The other, Eric Johnson, is the least likely survivor of a group that includes Nathan Deal and John Oxendine.
But after splitting time last week with Deal, Handel and Johnson, I came away thinking that the latter two are the ones I’d like hear more from. (The Oxendine campaign didn’t answer queries about its schedule, which, as far as I can tell, has been pretty skimpy lately.)
There’s a lot of similarity in what these three say about issues. That may be because, in a tight race, no one wants to make any sudden moves. It might also be because voters still don’t seem to have tuned in yet. What follows, then, are my impressions of them.
Deal is a likable man — a good thing, since we spent two and a half hours together Wednesday riding from Atlanta to Cordele, where he did some campaigning. He comes across as thoughtful about policy, if not one to immerse himself in it.
I find nothing wrong, per se, with Deal’s stance or sincerity on most issues. He has put forth some of the more concrete proposals of the GOP campaign so far, particularly when it comes to taxes.
But he doesn’t strike me as someone who is passionate or energetic about them. Contrary to his, at times, hard-edged campaign, Deal’s approach to the race seems to lack a certain vigor.
I am not trying to find a coded or roundabout way of saying he’s older than the other GOP candidates. It isn’t that he’s not obviously a political climber, which may be an asset to voters who are skeptical of the overly ambitious. It’s not that he’s simply on the quiet side.
I just wonder whether he would merely be happy to find himself elected governor, as opposed to feeling strongly that Georgia needs to move in the direction he would set. Given our array of challenges, and the difficulty the next governor will face in meeting them, I wonder whether Nathan Deal is the right man at the wrong time.
Questions of purpose and desire don’t arise with Karen Handel or Eric Johnson.
Neither one seems to really enjoy politicking — kissing babies, delivering and redelivering and re-redelivering the same slogan (I’m not sure I can stand to hear or read Handel saying “Bring it on!” one more time). Both of them are kind of wonkish — that’s a nice way of saying nerdy — about the issues.
But both clearly want to be the governor in the sense that they want to do the business of governing.
Johnson is the most economical with words, a straight shooter who, at the Warner Robins debate, was often content to leave time on the clock. He, too, does quiet, but it’s an intense quiet.
Handel doesn’t do quiet. She will, I found, talk shop from Fayetteville to Columbus to Warner Robins.
She is big on process. That’s something I ordinarily consider overrated. But in Georgia’s case, with perhaps more spending to be cut, a willingness to examine processes in detail may be key to finding where the cuts can come from.
This is still an election without a theme. I probably won’t make up my mind until Tuesday. But in the runoff to follow, I wouldn’t mind seeing Handel and Johnson debate again.