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Big-time conservatives line up behind rival candidates

By Ed Hornick, CNN
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has endorsed several Republican candidates in their primary races.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has endorsed several Republican candidates in their primary races.
  • Georgia is holding a Republican gubernatorial race runoff Tuesday
  • Sarah Palin backs Karen Handel; Newt Gingrich supports Rep. Nathan Deal
  • Many Palin-backed candidates have gone on to win GOP primaries

Washington (CNN) -- Tuesday's runoff for Georgia's Republican governor's nomination isn't just Nathan Deal vs. Karen Handel -- it's also Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee vs. Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney.

Handel, Georgia's former secretary of state, was endorsed by Palin before the July 20 primary against former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, who is supported by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas governor and current TV talk show host Mike Huckabee.

Deal resigned his House seat to run for governor. Incumbent GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue is prohibited from running for a third consecutive term.

The winner will face former Gov. Roy Barnes, who lost to Perdue in 2002, and who easily won the Democratic primary.

Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said that the endorsements by GOP heavyweights, like Palin and Gingrich, are likely part of an effort to also lobby to be seen as the face of the Republican Party.

"The more people you help get elected, the larger influence you will have within a party," he said. "I think that's part of the reason why you see Palin endorsing candidates; [Sen. Jim] DeMint endorsing; Mitt Romney and [Minnesota Gov.] Tim Pawlenty contributing to and endorsing candidates."

Handel vaulted into the lead in polls after Palin endorsed her just before the July primary and captured 34 percent of the vote while Deal finished second with 23 percent. Since neither won 50 percent, the two were forced into Tuesday's runoff.

After the primary, former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney also endorsed Handel.

On Monday, Palin stumped in Atlanta, Georgia, for Handel, telling the crowd that it's time to end the "good ole boy network that really gets in the way of just doing the things that the people who want to hire a good governor are expecting from their government."

Her support has quieted some on the right who criticized Handel as not being conservative enough.

Gonzales said the notion of conservative versus conservative endorsement is overblown.

"I don't think these races are boiling down to Palin vs. [Sen. Jim] DeMint or Palin vs. Gingrich," he said. "If Deal wins, I don't think you get to say 'Oh, well, it's Gingrich beating Palin.' I think the race is kind of more complex than that.

Endorsements aren't always about rivalries or limited to Republicans. In Tuesday's Democratic U.S. Senate primary in Colorado, President Obama is endorsing incumbent Michael Bennet while former President Bill Clinton backs rival Andrew Romanoff, the former state House speaker whom Clinton has known since 1992 and who backed Hillary Clinton's presidential bid in 2008.

Many of the candidates Palin has endorsed so far have gone on to win their primary challenge. According to a tally as of early August, 10 Palin-backed candidates have won their respective primaries, six have lost.

Among the big names who have come out on top: Senate candidates Rand Paul in Kentucky and Carly Fiorina in California; gubernatorial candidates Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Terry Branstad in Iowa; House candidates Adam Kinzinger in Illinois and Tim Scott in South Carolina.

Palin's sheen, however, was not enough to save Rep. Todd Tiahrt in his race against Rep. Jerry Moran to become Kansas' next senator. And it put her at odds with top Republicans: DeMint of South Carolina, who is considered a possible 2012 GOP presidential contender, and John McCain, who tapped Palin in 2008 as his running mate.

Gonzales said that the loss may be chalked up to Palin's endorsement coming so late in the game.

"She endorsed Todd Tiahrt fairly late in that race," he said. "I would have been interested to see if she could have had an impact there if she had endorsed earlier."

"That race there ended up being 5 or so points closer than what the polls were showing," he added. "It would have been a good test case to her influence. The timing, I think, was just too late."

According to a July Gallup survey, 76 percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of Palin. She is trailed by Huckabee with 65 percent, Newt Gingrich at 64 percent and Mitt Romney coming in with 54 percent.

Palin's persona and rock-star-esque enthusiasm by supporters has helped her surge with Republicans.

"Palin's a media star. An appearance or endorsement by her guarantees that a candidate dominates the local news and maybe has a shot at national cable," Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez told CNN. "But she appears sparingly and is conscious not to overexpose herself."

A Palin endorsement in the primary, however, may ultimately backfire for a candidate running for the general election, when politicians work to refocus their message appeal to moderates and independents.

According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 52 percent said they would respond in a negative manner if they knew Palin endorsed a candidate they were considering voting for.

While Gingrich has made high-profile endorsements, observers note that he is also laying the groundwork for a potential 2012 presidential run. On Friday, Gingrich will return to Iowa for the sixth time to attend the State Fair.

His visit will come on the heels of Pawlenty's visit to the fair, scheduled for Friday. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum -- also considered to be a potential 2012 candidate -- will attend the fair in late August.

CNN's Peter Hamby, Alex Mooney and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.