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Barnes wins Georgia Democratic battle, GOP fight heads to runoff

By Paul Steinhauser and Kristi Ramsay, CNN
Ex-Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel is leading the GOP gubernatorial contest.
Ex-Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel is leading the GOP gubernatorial contest.
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 is a step closer to his goal of winning back his old job.

Barnes Tuesday easily won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. But Barneswill have to wait until next month to find out who his Republican opponent will be in November's general election.

With 98 percent of precincts reporting, the Georgia Secretary of State's web page indicated that Barnes had captured 65.8 percent of the primary vote, with state Attorney General Thurbert Baker at 21.7 percent. Five other Democratic gubernatorial candidates were in the single digits.

"Tonight is the beginning to take our state back from the lobbyists and the special interests," Barnes told a crowd of supporters Tuesday night in Atlanta.

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 isn't the case with the competitive Republican gubernatorial battle.

With 98 percent of precincts reporting, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel led the GOP contest with 34.1 percent of the vote. Former Rep. Nathan Deal was in second, at 22.9 percent, followed by former state Sen. Eric Johnson at 20.1 and state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine at 16.9 percent. Three other candidates were in single digits.

Handel and Deal now advance to the runoff election.

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.

Deal grabbed his own major endorsement, winning the backing of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"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.

CNN's Steve Brusk contributed to this report.