A political party’s field of candidates is much like the inkblot of a Rorschach test.
The blob that looks like an intimidating army to one soul might resemble a weak-kneed B-team when seen through the eyes of another. Appearances depend on the size of your own ambition and, quite possibly, the state of your wallet.
Casey Cagle left the Republican race for governor a tumultuous 12 days ago. Even as you read this on Monday morning, a surgeon’s scalpel could be hovering over the lieutenant governor’s spine, attempting to repair the degenerating discs that forced his withdrawal.
The GOP field now stands at four. Whether Cagle has left a hole in the ranks is the question that has dominated Republican discourse from here to Washington.
So far, three GOP stalwarts have stared at the inkblot — and have seen nothing in it for them.
Sam Olens, the Cobb County Commission chairman, House Speaker pro tem Mark Burkhalter, and U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland disappeared one after another last week, like a string of unlucky characters in an Agatha Christie whodunit. Each declared his disinterest in the race.
The economy was a large part of their calculations. Embarking on a new, $10 million enterprise — and that’s what a statewide campaign is — is risky even in good times.
Burkhalter in particular cited the need to keep an eye on his real estate business.
The fact that so many of their Republican compadres see something missing in the 2010 governor’s race no doubt gives heartburn to Secretary of State Karen Handel and state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine — two vetted, statewide office-holders already in the contest.
But the dissatisfaction has, at times, been obvious. Earlier this month, Republicans in the 10th Congressional District in northeast Georgia — one of the most conservative regions of the state — held a straw poll.
Oxendine and Handel each took 30 percent of the vote. “Undecided” beat them both, said chairman Dave Barbee of Augusta. State Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton received no votes. (A fourth candidate is states’ rightist Ray McBerry.)
“That tells me that no one has an upper hand,” Barbee said.
What’s the source of the dissatisfaction? Some Republicans worry that Oxendine’s fiery, anti-establishment approach has limited appeal — given the GOP’s control of the state Capitol, Barbee said. Others worry over Handel’s connections to Gov. Sonny Perdue.
But geography may be the key. Both Handel and Oxendine are products of north metro Atlanta. While Republican victories are built on an alliance between suburbia and farm country, much of rural Georgia remains suspicious of anything that originates north of I-20.
Which makes it significant that one Republican still considering the race for governor is state Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah.
Johnson, the former leader of the Senate, is currently a candidate for lieutenant governor. But Cagle, after his surgery, now intends to run for re-election.
A Johnson decision to replace Cagle in the race for governor offers a neatness that Republicans often find attractive.
The only problem: Johnson’s staff is — like that of Handel — peopled with former Perdue loyalists. Johnson’s campaign chairman is John Watson, the governor’s former chief of staff. Johnson and Handel share the same fund-raiser, who also has roots with the Perdue organization.
Over the weekend, word spread that Johnson was scouting out new hires. He’s to make a decision early this week.
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