The primaries are still nearly six months away, but the 12 candidates running for governor are in the midst of a crucial three-week stretch of debates and forums that could have implications in fund-raising and balloting come July.
There are three debates or forums this week on top of three over the past two weeks. Each event is being sponsored by an important constituency or interest group, and the stakes are high already.
"We've been doing a lot of meet and greet and preliminary stuff, and all of a sudden you turn the corner the first of the year, and we're on the runway now," said Harris Blackwood, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal's campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. "This is a very, very important time in our campaign, and we don't discount it at all."
Deal is one of the few candidates participating in all the events that feature Republican candidates. There was the debate in Athens two weeks ago hosted by the Clarke County GOP, and forums last week by the Georgia Municipal Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Democrats also participated in those last two, and Tuesday night they will have their own televised debate in Athens, this one sponsored by the Democratic Party of Georgia. On Thursday, the top five GOP candidates -- Deal, Karen Handel, Eric Johnson, John Oxendine and Austin Scott -- will debate in Alpharetta at an event sponsored by Beacon Media Co. Finally, on Saturday, the Georgia Christian Alliance will host a series of forums for statewide candidates, although it's questionable whether any Democrats will participate.
Nearly all these events have particular importance for the Republican candidates. The NFIB, for example, is largely a conservative organization that backs Republican policies, although two of the five Democratic candidates participated in its forum. The Beacon debate is hosting only GOP candidates in a GOP stronghold. And the Georgia Christian Alliance is a rock-ribbed right-leaning religious group.
This is not lost on the candidates.
"This is the time that you get to talk about issues and when you're talking about specific issue groups," Blackwood said. "You get to demonstrate that you know what their needs are."
Carol Porter, the wife and campaign manager for Democrat DuBose Porter, said the events provide important opportunities for candidates who are unlikely to have the financial resources to blanket the state with television advertisements.
"These debates put the peoples' voice back into government," she said. "This is one way the people get to see the politicians unfiltered, which is always very good for DuBose."
Tuesday: Democratic candidates for governor -- Thurbert Baker, Roy Barnes, Carl Camon, DuBose Porter and David Poythress -- debate in Athens.
Time: 7 p.m.
TV: WGCL in Atlanta
Thursday: Republicans Nathan Deal, Karen Handel, Eric Johnson, John Oxendine and Austin Scott debate at the Metropolitan Club in Alpharetta
Time: 7:15 p.m.
Saturday: Candidates for all statewide offices speak at a Georgia Christian Alliance forum at Riverwood High School in Atlanta. Mostly Republicans are expected to participate.
Time: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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