No one speaks of it — in the way that no one takes note of the dog that doesn’t bark or the child who doesn’t whine.
But one of the biggest changes in the Republican race for governor in the past three months has been the quiet transformation of the John Oxendine campaign.
This time last year, the state insurance commissioner was blithely tweeting his way across Georgia, desperate to engage voters on any topic, whether high or low.
“We just finished the nursery for baby Jake,” the Ox tapped out. “The room is Confederate gray. Reminds me of why I am running. …”
Though it may live elsewhere on the Internet, the hospital room video made only hours after baby Jake’s delivery — which featured Oxendine again making the connection to his campaign — no longer has a spot on the candidate’s YouTube channel.
More important, the campaign’s loud fulminations against media inquiries into Oxendine’s background have given way to controlled, measured responses. And, often, well-timed silence.
The change coincides with a March overhaul. Campaign manager Stephen Puetz, who had been political director of the Tom Foley gubernatorial campaign, was brought in from Connecticut.
Jeff Roe, who ran turnout for Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign in ‘08 throughout much of the South, including Georgia, was hired as chief strategist.
“We’ve brought in some of the top-notch staff from around the country,” Oxendine said recently. “I’m humble enough to say that I as an individual have grown and seasoned. People should always grow and improve.”
In other words, Oxendine has begun behaving like the front-runner he has been for the past 18 months.
“We’re going to try to run an adult campaign and not sit there and take jabs at other Republicans, tweet about other Republicans,” he said. “If there’s an issue, we’re going to comment on it. We’re not going to take cheap shots.”
Though they are reluctant to speak about it publicly, key supporters of Oxendine’s rivals for the GOP nomination have noticed the new discipline. And in backrooms across the state, they have begun to sound alarms.
The assumption has been that despite Oxendine’s advantages — a large cash lead over two of his three major rivals and a consistent (though shrinking) lead in polls — ethical baggage would doom him in an August runoff.
Specifically, the suitcases include some questionable campaign fund-raising and more than close relationships with the executives of insurance companies he now is in charge of regulating.
The State Ethics Commission has scheduled a June 24 hearing — less than a month before the primary — to examine $120,000 in donations made to Oxendine’s campaign by 10 Alabama political action committees.
The amount was 10 times the legal limit.
But efforts that could delay the hearing are already under way. Even if it is held as scheduled, Oxendine so far has boasted a surface that, if not Teflon, is at least stain-resistant.
“Despite months of vetting, [Oxendine’s] polling position has not dropped measurably, further showing our campaign’s staying power,” reads a campaign memo aimed at supporters — and possible contributors who might be willing to hedge their bets.
But Oxendine’s inevitability is not accepted universally.
Heath Garrett, a Republican political strategist closely associated with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, argues that July 20 could pair any of four Republicans in a runoff: Oxendine, former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, former state Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah and former Secretary of State Karen Handel.
None in the quartet, Garrett said, has developed the three ingredients — money, message and geographical base — in a strong enough combination to eclipse the other three in the contest.
A single message — boosting a candidate or tearing the other guy down — costs $600,000 in TV ads to be effective. That could limit even the richest Republican campaign to two or three complete thoughts.
“A message isn’t effective until a candidate puts real resources behind it,” Garrett said.
Oxendine isn’t the only candidate gearing up for a tightening, low-budget race.
Deal’s campaign, like that of Oxendine, has undergone something of a makeover this spring. As measured by his March 31 report, fund-raising hasn’t been stellar. But a 9th Congressional District primary — suddenly extended by GOP front-runner Tom Graves’ financial problems — could boost turnout in Deal’s native North Georgia.
Handel, while the weakest fund-raiser in the quartet, has a strong base in metro Atlanta’s northern suburbs. And her decision this week to confront Georgia Right to Life over restrictions demanded by the anti-abortion group on in vitro fertilization could distinguish her among voters, especially among women.
Hailing from the coast, Johnson, the former leader of the state Senate, may have the softest geographic base. But he is second only to Oxendine in fund-raising, putting him in the best position to challenge the state insurance commissioner on television.
Johnson predicted a post-July Fourth air war would put him in the runoff — with Oxendine.
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