Former Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) forced his way into the gubernatorial runoff after coming from behind to take second in Tuesday’s vote. He faces an uphill battle against former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R), who surged ahead of the seven-person field after getting endorsed by Sarah Palin.

Handel finished first with 33 percent of the vote to 24 percent for Deal. The Associated Press declared the two entrants into the August runoff with 2,317 of 2,902 precincts reporting. 

Deal left Congress in March to focus on his gubernatorial bid. The crowded race was thrown open after Palin, in a July 12 note posted on her Facebook page, called Handel a “reformer.”

“This pro-life, pro-Constitutionalist with a can-do attitude and a record of fighting for ethics in government is ready to serve in the governor’s office,” the former Alaska governor wrote.

The announcement pushed Handel to the front of the pack and, as in South Carolina, sparked a vicious reaction from her rivals.

Deal, in a recent statement, called Palin’s decision “disappointing” and then accused Handel of voting to fund gay “outreach” to “kids.”

“As Fulton Commission chair, Handel voted to give taxpayer dollars to ‘Youth Pride’ which did outreach to gay and ‘questioning’ kids as young as 13 and funded seminars such as ‘Unsung Heroes of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community’ — this was during a budget crisis,” Deal said.

He has been endorsed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Last month Palin’s backing helped South Carolina Republican Nikki Haley claim her party’s gubernatorial nod. Haley won a runoff against Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.)

State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine slipped to fourth place after leading the pack in polls for much of the race. 

The winner will face former Gov. Roy Barnes, who handily won the Democratic primary earlier in the evening. Current Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) is termed limited. 

The runoff is Aug. 10.