Handel, Deal focus on abortion; voters want to hear about jobs

Contrary to popular belief, Karen Handel and Nathan Deal actually have discussed more than just abortion in their runoff campaign for the GOP nomination for governor.

But, for some voters, it's still too much.

"The state has 10 percent unemployment and the worst budget crisis ever, and they want to fight over things that happened in the '90s," said James Williams, 42, of DeKalb County, who said he supported Handel in the primary. "It makes me angry enough to skip voting for the first time in my life."

One week since Handel and Deal emerged as the top two finishers in the primary, their campaigns for the Aug. 10 runoff have narrowed in focus, tone and appeal. With five fewer candidates now running, the pair are focusing exclusively on each other and trying to find any advantage they can to persuade Republican voters to return to the polls.

Deal and Handel do occasionally discuss topics other than abortion. On Monday, for example, Handel released an education plan that focuses on technology in the classroom, performance-based pay for teachers and attacking the state's dropout rate. Deal has tried to focus on his plan for economic development and taxes that would, among other things, eliminate the "marriage tax penalty" and cut the corporate income tax by a third.

But the actual visibility of the campaigns has been somewhat limited as both work the phones to replenish spent campaign coffers. There's been two joint appearances, one debate, one new television ad and a lot of sniping via Twitter. Still, through their limited appearances, statements of campaigns and surrogates, social issues in general and abortion in particular have played a big role.

For some voters, there is little difference between Handel, a former secretary of state, and Deal, a former congressman, when it comes to other issues. On taxes, for example, both favor cutting them. They both promise to help small businesses. They both want to protect teachers and to limit the size and scope of government.

That leaves little ground for the two to try to distinguish themselves, said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University who has followed the race closely. And one area where they disagree is abortion.

To recap the abortion debate:

  • Handel believes legal abortion should be available in the cases of rape, incest or if the mother's life is threatened. Deal only recognizes an exception for the mother's life.
  • Deal, but not Handel, was endorsed by the influential Georgia Right to Life, a leading abortion opposition group, which objects to Handel's acceptance of an exemption on rape and incest.
  • Deal criticized Handel over a vote she took while on the Fulton County Commission in 2005 that granted $400,000 to Planned Parenthood. Handel said the money went to cancer screenings, and Deal countered that it freed up other dollars that could go to abortions.
  • Handel's campaign discovered that in 1993 Deal voted to approve more than $400 million to Planned Parenthood. Handel said that money went to abortions. Deal said it did not and that he has grown more conservative in his views on abortion since then.
  • Handel has called for the resignation of a pair of Georgia Right to Life leaders who have criticized her, calling her "barren" because she and her husband can't have children. The group also criticized Sarah Palin after the former governor of Alaska, who was the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, endorsed Handel despite the fact that Palin's views on abortion mirror Deal's.

While much of that occurred before the July 20 primary, the issue has dominated the runoff. Sometimes it's subtle, sometimes not.

A good example is Deal's first ad of the runoff. It features two of his grandchildren asking why he wants to be governor. His answers are mostly about federal spending, but in the voice-over at the end, a narrator's first description of him is "pro-life, real conservative."

Swint said the ad is smart because after a blistering primary, the campaign needed "to warm up his image a little bit."

As for the narrator's reminder of his "pro-life" credentials, Swint said it is where Deal believes he has an edge.

"That is where Nathan Deal wants it to go," Swint said. "It's where he can differentiate himself and where he thinks he has an advantage."

Daniel Groce, 22, of Macon voted for former state Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) in the primary. He's trying to choose a candidate for the runoff but doesn't hear much from Deal or Handel that's not about abortion or gay rights.

"I'm not interested in either of those things," Groce said. "I don't think they're pressing issues."

Gov. Sonny Perdue last week ordered state agencies to cut their budgets by another 4 percent over concerns that federal dollars the state was counting on might not arrive. Yet, Groce said, the candidates for governor aren't talking about that.

Social conservatives tend to be among the most committed voters and are therefore more likely to return to the polls in August. Swint said that could be one reason issues such as abortion are so in focus.

Theresa Matt, 66, of Athens is strongly against abortion, but she wants to hear the candidates discuss jobs, water and Jekyll Island. A retired attorney who said social issues are "real important to me," she voted for Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick) in the primary, and if the runoff vote comes down to abortion, she's not impressed with either Deal or Handel.

"I don't really trust either one of them," she said.