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Top trio out front in Georgia

Republicans look like they’ll dodge a bullet in the Georgia Senate primary.

The crowded field was once a top worry for national strategists who feared a Todd Akin-esque candidate would torpedo their chances to keep the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

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But much to their relief, the May 20 primary election is increasingly looking like a three-way race for two runoff slots among businessman David Perdue (R), former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). And the two candidates that scared Republicans the most, Reps. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) and Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), are fading fast.

Now, national strategists say they would feel good with Perdue, Handel or Kingston as their nominee to take on Democrats’ top recruit, Michelle Nunn, and defend the seat.

But each brings very different strengths and weaknesses to the table: a wealthy CEO whose record is ripe for attacks; a female Republican with a feisty streak and weak fundraising; and a 22-year congressman who has the Chamber of Commerce’s backing but is no favorite of fiscal conservatives.

Only two will survive.

The self-funding Perdue has led in most public polls, with Kingston not far behind him. The two have had by far the largest presence on TV, spending millions of dollars apiece as the other candidates struggled to get on the air.

But the underfunded Handel, who is on a shoestring budget, has surged in recent weeks and has been within striking distance of Kingston in polls. Insiders say it’s unclear whether her momentum can last past the primary into a summer runoff.

Handel’s surge began partly thanks to Perdue. After video emerged of him criticizing her for not earning a college degree, she came out firing on him as an elitist millionaire. She also benefited from a big endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who remains popular with the base.

Thankfully for national Republicans, neither Gingrey nor Broun ever caught steam. Both are hard-line conservatives prone to gaffes, and Broun failed to raise much money or hire a serious staff, while Gingrey lost a number of top campaign staffers late last year and never recovered, despite a sizable campaign fund.

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