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Barnes wins Georgia Democratic battle, GOP fight heads to runoff

By Paul Steinhauser and Kristi Ramsay, CNN
Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, is vying to get his old job back. He lost a re-election bid in 2002.
Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, is vying to get his old job back. He lost a re-election bid in 2002.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roy Barnes is projected to win Georgia's Democratic gubernatorial nomination
  • Barnes served as governor of Georgia from 1999 to 2003
  • Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel was leading on the GOP side
  • Handel led a pack of Republican candidates, with a runoff likely
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Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes has won his state's Democratic gubernatorial nomination, according to a projection by the Associated Press. But it appears Barnes will have to wait until next month to find out who his Republican opponent will be in November's general election.

With 74 percent of precincts reporting, an unofficial count of the primary contests by AP indicated that Barnes had captured 63.8 percent of the vote, with state Attorney General Thurbert Baker at 21.5 percent. Five other Democratic gubernatorial candidates were in the single digits.

Barnes appeared to be looking to the general election even before Tuesday's primary. Over the weekend he surprised some by saying he would sign an Arizona-style immigration bill if elected governor.

By grabbing more than 50 percent of the vote, Barnes avoids a runoff contest on August 10.

That doesn't appear to be the case the competitive Republican gubernatorial battle.

With 74 percent of precincts reporting, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel led the GOP contest with 32.3 percent of the vote. Former Rep. Nathan Deal was in second, at 24 percent, followed by former state Sen. Eric Johnson at 19.7 and state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine at 17.2 percent. Three other candidates were in single digits.

AP projected that Handel will advance to the runoff election. She'll face off against which ever candidate finishes second in the primary.

Last week, former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin backed Handel for governor. Public opinion surveys indicated that the endorsement helped propel Handel into the front-runner position. Until the endorsement, surveys stretching back to last year indicated that Oxendine was the candidate to beat.

On her Facebook page, Palin called Handel a reformer who will "strengthen ... families, businesses, state and, ultimately, our United States." Handel also went up with a campaign commercial that mentioned that she's the only female candidate in the contest.

The Republican race turned bitter following Palin's endorsement, with a tough new ad from the Oxendine campaign taking on Handel, and the Handel and Deal campaigns, accusing each other of playing the gender card.

Oxendine was the subject of unflattering investigative pieces about a possible corruption probe in the 1990s. Oxendine was never charged with wrongdoing, and he has insisted that he did not know he was ever investigated, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And the Handel-Deal war of words has raised their profiles.

Deal was the subject of a congressional ethics probe before stepping down from his House seat in March to pursue a gubernatorial run. He has denied wrongdoing.

"It's been clear for a while that this would be a race to the runoff, and it looks like Palin's endorsement has helped Handel, not only get to the runoff but potentially finish first on Tuesday," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "Palin has a following within the Republican Party, and in a multi-candidate contest, she can have impact."

In May, Palin endorsed little-known South Carolina state lawmaker Nikki Haley in that state's GOP gubernatorial nomination battle. Palin's backing helped Haley jump from the bottom of the pack to front-runner, according to state polls. Haley ended up coming out on top in South Carolina's June 8 primary, capturing nearly 50 percent of the vote in a four-candidate field. Two weeks later, Haley easily won the runoff election to take the nomination.