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.). 

{mosads}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 benefitted 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.

But even with essentially three top contenders, the race has turned increasingly negative in recent weeks, a sign of what’s to come in an inevitable runoff.

While Handel has pounded Perdue for weeks, he hit back in a debate last weekend, accusing her of using taxpayer funds to lease a Lexus while she was secretary of State. Perdue and his allies have been on the air criticizing Kingston for supporting earmarks and voting to raise the debt ceiling. Kingston, after staying positive for most of his campaign, is now going after Perdue’s business record, saying he made millions while firing people and outsourcing jobs.

“When you’ve got a guy who’s laid off 8,000 employees, the largest layoff in textile industry history, and happened to take the largest payout in textile industry history on his way out the door, that’s something Democrats would love to have,” Kingston campaign manager Chris Crawford told The Hill about Perdue, arguing he’d be unelectable in the general election.

Those attacks were echoed by Handel’s campaign, labeling both Perdue and Kingston “liberal establishment Republicans who are spending millions trying to buy the election.” 

“David Perdue is an unelectable general election candidate,” Handel campaign manager Corry Bliss said. 

But Perdue’s campaign said the volleys against the nominal front-runner were par for the course. 

“Their attacks are an indication that David is ahead in the polls and has a target on his back. That’s not unexpected when we have a chance to do something extraordinary in this race: retire four career politicians,” Perdue spokesman Derrick Dickey said.

Get ready for Overtime 

Republican strategists say to expect a rough-and-tumble runoff battle for the nomination, though the different permutations would yield very different types of campaigns. 

If Kingston and Perdue face off, two well-funded candidates with some establishment support will battle for supremacy, with Kingston likely to focus on Perdue’s business record and Perdue likely to paint Kingston as a career politician.

If it’s Handel, many expect an even sharper fight. She’s a fierce campaigner unafraid to pull punches, as her most recent attacks show. There’s still bad blood between her and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), who beat her in a nasty 2010 gubernatorial runoff. The two never reconciled, and many question whether they could even cooperate on the same ticket, and whether Deal might privately or publicly seek to help whomever she faces in the runoff.

“I don’t know if Karen has been very eager to heal that rift. The governor hasn’t either. If they’re both on the same ticket, I think it’ll work, but it’ll be a very interesting dynamic,” said one Georgia Republican strategist who knows both campaigns.

“If the race is David Perdue and Karen Handel, it will be a pay-per-view street brawl,” said Georgia GOP strategist Chip Lake, who briefly worked for Gingrey’s campaign last year. “If it’s Kingston and Perdue, they appeal to a similar base. A lot of their donors are considered establishment donors, and even though David’s running as an outsider they have similar appeal.”

Other Republicans agree. While they say Perdue and Kingston will hit one another hard, with Perdue targeting Kingston’s Washington record and Kingston going after Perdue’s business career, they’re more worried about what happens if Handel gets in the runoff.

“Handel has been very aggressive in her attacks and stances on things, and you’ll see that come out more,” said one unaligned Republican strategist in the state. “There’s this possibility that you have two people willing to go balls to the wall. As a Republican, it makes me concerned for my party’s brand.”

“Jack is the most disciplined and experienced candidate, which is a positive, but his TV commercials aren’t resonating, and there are aspects of his message that aren’t resonating, and that can be a big issue,” the strategist continued. “Perdue has a lot of money, has had great commercials, but on the flip side, a lot of the money is self-funded. And with Handel, I get very concerned when things get very negative.”

Nunn still on GOP’s mind 

Waiting in the wings is Nunn, a former charity executive and the daughter of popular former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). She’s raised close to $7 million for the race and has been running ads featuring former President George H.W. Bush, for whom she ran charitable efforts.

Nunn might have the best chance against Perdue because of his business record. Expect Democrats to seize on layoffs and his own personal profits, echoing the way they attacked 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney. 

But in an anti-Washington environment, Democrats say Kingston’s decades in Washington offer plenty to attack and that Handel’s support of last year’s government shutdown and very public departure from the Susan G. Komen Foundation provides fodder. 

“There’s no better contrast to these overheated partisan attacks than Michelle’s own story of working with businesses, charities and religious organizations to make a difference,” said Nunn spokesman Nathan Click. “Georgians want leaders bring people together, and that’s why Michelle’s campaign continues to gain momentum.”  

Republicans know the state is changing but maybe not fast enough for 2014. They predict any of the three will beat Nunn, but privately, strategists admit it will be a tough race. 

“The president lost Georgia by 8 points in 2012, and since then, his approval ratings in the state continue to steadily decline,” said Georgia Republican Party spokeswoman Leslie Shedd. “You do the math.”

Tags David Perdue Georgia Georgia Republican Party Karen Handel

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