By Maria Saporta
Political pundits in Georgia agree — John Oxendine, GOP gubernatorial candidate and current insurance commissioner, should not star in his own television commercials.
Oxendine, who has been the front-runner in the highly-contested GOP race for governor, has seen his numbers slip in recent polls, and some are even saying that he may not even make the run-off.
But political pundits (their label) acknowledged, in a panel discussion Wednesday evening at the law offices of McKenna Long & Aldridge, that the race is in a state of flux and that the polling numbers are likely to keep changing before Tuesday’s primary election.
“Every one is polling,” said Matt Towery, publisher of InsiderAdvantage, a polling and research firm. “It will be different Sunday night that it is today. It will change.”
But Towery asked the other panelists their predictions, and the three felt that there would be a run-off between Oxendine and former Secretary of State Karen Handel.
“It’s been many, many years where we’ve seen such a competitive race,” said Tom Houck, a long time commentator who has his own public affairs and media company.
Dick Williams, a political journalist and observer for decades, also believed that Oxendine and Handel would be in a run-off. But he added that “John Oxendine is dropping like a stone,” largely because he spoke on his own commercials.
Finally, Tom Baxter, editor of the Southern Political Report, agreed: “The ad really was that bad.” But he still felt Oxendine would be in a run-off.
Only Towery disagreed with that consensus. “I would be shocked if Oxendine is in the run-off,” Towery said. “Those were the worst commercials ever.”
The pundits believed that Handel had the strongest base of support — the northern part of metro Atlanta, followed former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal’s base in Northeast Georgia. Oxendine, who is from Gwinnett County, does not seem to have a particularly strong base in his home county. But he is seen as having the greatest statewide name recognition by having won his post three times, Baxter said.
Two new polls were released Thursday — a Rasmussen poll saying that Handel and Deal were tied with 25 percent of the vote and Oxendine was in third place with 20 percent; and a Georgia Newspaper Partnership poll that showed Oxendine with 31 percent of the vote, Handel with 23 percent and Deal with 18 percent.
On the Democratic side, the pundits all agreed that former Gov. Roy Barnes would win without a run-off. Most polls show him with well over 50 percent of the vote.
Theoretically, a run-off should be unavoidable in the Democratic side given that a majority of voters are African-Americans, and that Attorney General Thurbert Baker (who is polling second) could be expected to receive a majority of those votes, Williams said. But that theory is not playing out in the governor’s race.
“Barnes is running a terrific campaign,” Williams said.
So where would that leave the general election.
“Handel likely will be the nominee,” Towery said, which would lead to a Barnes versus Handel match in November.
Using a phrase from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Towery talked about a “malaise” that exists in the state because of little progress in transportation, water and education issues. Barnes already is running a general election campaign by saying that the Republicans are corrupt and inept and have taken a crazy pill, Towery said.
“Barnes is running the best campaign for governor; he’s the best equipped to be governor from day one; he’s a brilliant man, accomplished in both business and politics,” Towery said. “Everything is going for him except the dead weight of the national Democratic party.”
President Barack Obama’s approval rating in Georgia had dropped from 47 percent in November, 2008 election to 35 percent today, Towery added.
Williams, however, said that might be offset by the fact that “there are a lot of Republican businessmen supporting Roy Barnes.
“He’ll have a ton of money,” Houck said.
But if Barnes wins in November, he challenges will have just begun. He’ll be dealing with a difficult state budget and a Republican-led General Assembly.
Plus, Williams said that Barnes’ campaign proposals are estimated to have a $2 billion price-tag, and it will be tough to get any new initiatives through given the state’s budget and a majority Republican legislature.