Day by day, the dynamics of this bitter Republican runoff for governor become ever more clear.
Only on Tuesday’s ballot will the contest pit former Secretary of State Karen Handel against former Congressman Nathan Deal.
Everywhere else, it will be Sarah Palin vs. the Georgia General Assembly. State lawmakers aren’t sure it’s a fair fight.
“We’re competing with almost a People magazine-type atmosphere when it comes to Ms. Palin and presidential politics,” House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones of Milton said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
Jones called Palin “a nice lady” who has spent less than 24 hours in Georgia.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, was on the line as well.
“I would want to know how long Governor Palin has known Secretary Handel and how long she’s known Congressman Deal,” he said.
Ralston emphasized that his endorsement of Deal — made before he became speaker in December — was based on a 30-year friendship. Deal is a fellow North Georgian and a former state senator.
“I don’t do these things lightly. I don’t do them to write a book or get on a talk show,” the speaker said.
No one disputes that the endorsement by the former Alaskan governor, made days before the July 20 primary, was essential to Handel’s first-place finish.
On Wednesday, her campaign added a finishing touch — handing out details of a Palin-Handel rally in a Buckhead hotel less than 20 hours before polls open.
The Deal campaign has responded to the Palin avalanche by rallying the vast majority of Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate to its side — lawmakers who think they’ve been unfairly made the butt of Handel’s criticism of “sex, lies and lobbyists” at the state Capitol.
Handel was the first to call for Speaker Glenn Richardson’s resignation last year following his attempted suicide and his ex-wife’s televised revelations that he’d had an affair with a lobbyist.
But legislative hostility toward Handel has deepened within recent weeks.
In mid-June, her campaign — pointing at a TV report on another alleged relationship between a state lawmaker and lobbyist — sent out a news release with the headline “Good Ole’ Boys Strike Again.”
Handel — still seeking a spot in the runoff — also decried the ethics legislation passed this spring by the Legislature, in the wake of the Richardson mess, as “little more than window dressing.”
Among those miffed was the new House speaker. In replacing Richardson, Ralston had promised to clean up his predecessor’s mess.
“I expressed to [Handel] that I had some concerns about her attacks,” Ralston told reporters Wednesday.
Joe Wilkinson of Sandy Springs, the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, withdrew his support of Handel — a fellow resident of north Fulton County — after the June attack.
Jones, the House speaker pro tem and another north Fulton resident, was neutral until the runoff. She termed Handel’s attacks on the Legislature as “disappointing.”
Faced with having to defend itself against charges of good-ol’-boyism, participation by women in the Legislature has been viewed as crucial by the Deal campaign.
“As Georgia’s highest-ranking female legislator, I know what it takes to get things done at the Capitol,” Jones said in a robo-call sent out to Republican voters this week. “It’s not about gender.”
Without mentioning her by name, Jones underlined the fact that Handel could become the first governor in more than 40 years who hasn’t served a term in the Legislature.
“We need a governor who’s qualified,” Jones said. “[President Barack] Obama has shown us the damage that inexperience can cause. And we can’t afford to take that same risk here in Georgia.”
Running against a GOP-led Legislature in the final days of the runoff campaign doesn’t bother Handel. It becomes yet another way to burnish her image as an outsider.
“Congressman Deal has said the Legislature would be his ‘board of directors,’ meaning they would be his boss — so of course they will support him,” Handel spokesman Dan McLagan said. “Georgians, however, want a governor who works for them, not the Legislature.”
In their conference call on Wednesday, both Ralston and Jones — the two House leaders — made sure that reporters understood that they intend to support whoever wins the Republican nomination on Tuesday.
But if Handel survives Tuesday, and if she were to beat Roy Barnes in November, this week’s drama could mean a lot in a state Capitol already famous for its dysfunction.
“This mud-wrestling contest that we’re now in is going to end soon,” Ralston said. “And when it ends, we’ve got to still balance a budget next session, we still have to work on the HOPE scholarship.”