In unofficial returns from the Tuesday election, Nathan Deal and Karen Handel each claimed 50 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Deal did hold a slim lead with an unknown number of provisional, overseas and military ballots yet to be counted. Under Georgia law, the runner-up can request a recount if the margin is less than 1 percent.
If the more than a half-million ballots cast are recounted, it could be at least next week before a GOP nominee is selected.
After a late night watching election results roll in, bleary-eyed Republicans packed a state GOP breakfast in Atlanta Wednesday morning.
Deal said he expects to prevail when all the ballots are counted.
“We do believe the numbers that we see now will hold and that we will be the nominee,” Deal told the crowd.
And he offered an olive branch to his runoff rival, calling Handel “a worthy opponent.”
“She campaigned hard. She is a vigorous defender of her principles and I commend her,” the former congressman from Gainesville said.
Handel was a no-show at the event and also skipped the morning news shows.
House Speaker David Ralston called for the GOP to unite after the bitter three-week runoff race saying it is the only way the party will be able to defeat Democrat Roy Barnes in November.
“The other guy is already up on TV and he is working hard and he is going to be a formidable opponent,” Ralston said.
State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine put in his first public appearance since his disappointing fourth place finish in the state's July 20 GOP primary. Oxendine labeled Barnes “Barack Obama's personal representative here in Georgia” and offered the morning's prayer, which called for forgiveness.
Oxendine did not endorse in the runoff but told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he voted for Deal because he said the former congressman was more closely aligned with his conservative values. Oxendine said he believes his primary voters supported Deal.
Handel had been the presumed front runner. She catapulted to the top of the seven-person GOP field in the July 20 primary — outpacing Deal by 11 percentage points. An endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped. Palin flew across four time zones on Monday to stump for Handel in Atlanta in a rally designed to lift the former secretary of state across the finish line.
But Deal battled back from ethics allegations and staged a late surge, patching together support from rural parts of the state that appeared to embrace his staunchly conservative views and 18-year record in Congress. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is a possible presidential contender, was on Deal's side.
Since no candidate in the primary grabbed 50 percent plus one vote, the top two, Handel and Deal, met in a runoff.
As the two battled across the state for their party's nomination, Deal cast Handel as too liberal and suggested her lack of a college degree sent the wrong message to Georgia students.
Meanwhile, Handel repeatedly assailed Deal's ethics and labeled him “a corrupt relic of Washington.” During a televised debate, Handel called on Deal to stop “squealing” about negative attacks and put on “big boy pants.”
The 48-year-old Handel has cast herself as a fiery outsider, and Deal, 67, has played the role of steady, consensus builder with backing from many Republican members of the state Legislature.
With his rival unclear, Barnes has nonetheless already begun airing a television ad attacking the state's ruling Republican Party for ignoring Georgia's pressing problems.
Making the rounds of the morning television news shows, Barnes called for a civil general election saying it's possible to highlight differences without being mean.
“I think this race comes down to who can put Georgians back to work and kids back in school,” he said. “We need moderate leadership to make Georgia prosperous again.”