GOP seems miffed by its front-runner

John Oxendine dismisses talk he'd lose Governor's Mansion to Democrats

Their concerns surfaced last week when an influential Republican congressman publicly attacked Oxendine, a rare overt sign of discord among Georgia Republicans. Some party regulars have even suggested that a victory for Oxendine in this summer’s GOP primary could place the party in the position of losing the Governor’s Mansion to a Democrat.

Matt Towery, a former Republican legislator turned political analyst, said some party leaders are feeling a fresh sense of urgency as the race unfolds.

“There has never been any question in my mind that some elements of the party leadership would like John out of the race,” said Towery, who runs an Atlanta Internet media and polling firm. “I’m telling you, the guy right now is probably going to win the Republican nomination if somebody doesn’t take him down.”

Oxendine dismissed such assertions as the price of being the front-runner. “I am focused on doing my job as insurance commissioner, working for our taxpayers and bringing jobs to Georgia,” he said in a written statement.

“I am not interested in what the pundits are saying or nasty attacks from the other candidates.”

Last week’s fracas between Oxendine and U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta County Republican, exposed what appears to be a deepening divide between Oxendine and the party establishment, a divide that has been fed over the years by a series of controversies ranging from Oxendine’s use of lights and sirens to beat traffic to questions about campaign contributions.

Westmoreland told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he believes Oxendine used an investigation into a failed insurance company to pressure him to take a low profile in the governor’s race. Westmoreland described a phone call from Oxendine that he said felt like a “shakedown.”

Oxendine had called to inform the congressman that an insurance company whose advisory board he served on in 2003 and 2004 was under investigation.

Oxendine said the call was a courtesy, nothing more. But Westmoreland, who is backing Republican U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal in the race for governor, isn’t buying it.

“I think he thought he was going to worry me, “ he said. “It smells funny.”

The public airing of the disagreement gave rise to speculation in political circles and blogs about Oxendine’s prospects for winning the Governor’s Mansion.

On Friday, Westmoreland told the AJC: “2010 is going to be an extremely important election for our state. And as the Republican primary for governor draws closer, it is my hope that voters will take a good hard look at all of the candidates running so that we don’t nominate somebody who can’t win in November.”

Westmoreland would not specifically say whether Oxendine is that “somebody who can’t win in November.”

The fear for some Republicans is that should Oxendine win the nomination, he would likely face a well-funded Roy Barnes, the former governor who is the front-runner for the 2010 Democratic nomination. Barnes, they fear, with his experience, political talent and cash, would whip Oxendine in a head-to-head match.

Oxendine has always been viewed with trepidation by parts of the Republican establishment. For one, he’s a former Democrat who has exhibited intense ambition and a knack for self-promotion. That ambition, however, has helped make him popular with some segments of the Republican electorate. He has been insurance commissioner since 1995 and a near-constant presence on the GOP dinner and meeting circuit, a tireless campaigner and a gregarious hand-shaker.

The other candidates in the Republican gubernatorial race are, so far, keeping their thoughts on Oxendine to themselves.

There have been four debates or candidate forums in the past three weeks and Oxendine’s troubles have yet to become a topic of conversation.

The same is true for the state’s top elected Republicans, all of whom declined to publicly criticize Oxendine. For some, it is likely a question of timing — as in, it’s not time yet to unload.

Some of their supporters have shown no reluctance to fire away.

Erick Erickson, who runs two influential conservative political blogs and supports former Secretary of State Karen Handel in the governor’s race, wrote this week that he would vote for Barnes, the Democrat, over Oxendine.

“I do think at some point we’re going to reach a critical mass where the guys who are saying it privately are going to be so worried about their own skin they’re going to have to say something publicly about it,” said Erickson, who runs Redstate.org, which focuses on national issues, and PeachPundit.com, which deals with state politics.

“I know so many solid, diehard, would-never-vote-for-a-Democrat-under-any-circumstance-Republicans who will vote for the Democrat,” he said.

Oxendine has held a consistent, double-digit lead in polls of likely Republican primary voters. The most recent independent poll, released in December by Rasmussen Reports, shows Oxendine with 28 percent of the vote, double the 14 percent going to Handel. Deal is third with 13 percent, followed by state Rep. Austin Scott (R-Tifton), former state Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick) and states rights activist Ray McBerry, all of whom draw about 2 percent.

Oxendine has raised nearly $3 million through Dec. 31 and has $2.2 million on hand. That’s more than double the $940,000 Deal has on hand and nearly $1 million more than Johnson. Handel has $439,000 in cash.

Oxendine’s lead in the polls and in fund-raising comes in spite of a series of unflattering news reports.

The Westmoreland incident came just two weeks after Oxendine violated state hunting laws when he went quail hunting on a campaign contributor’s preserve. Oxendine’s 13-year-old son accidentally shot a man while hunting with Oxendine and others at Northwest Georgia Quail Preserve, which is co-owned by Delos “Dee” Yancey III. Yancey is CEO of State Mutual Insurance Co., based in Rome.

Oxendine does not have a license and has not taken a hunter safety course as required by law. The Department of Natural Resources gave Oxendine “verbal guidance” to complete the course.

Last May, the AJC reported that Yancey’s firms funneled $120,000 to Oxendine’s campaign in 2008. State law prohibits companies from giving money to the campaigns of officials who regulate them.

Oxendine denied knowledge of the donations and returned the money. The State Ethics Commission is investigating.

In December, Oxendine defended himself against fresh reports that he accepted trips to the Oscars on the tab of a contributor who asked for help in an insurance dispute.

The reports, which came out of a lawsuit involving the doctor, Jeffrey Gallups, and an Indiana insurance firm, also said the physician paid for a hunting trip.

Oxendine said he reimbursed Gallups who, along with his family and businesses, have contributed about $100,000 to Oxendine’s campaigns.

Oxendine’s lead in the polls, according to Rasmussen Reports’ analysis, is largely because of name identification.

Oxendine has seen his support drop in Rasmussen’s regular polls from 35 percent in April to 28 percent in December. But the poll found none of the other candidates making comparable gains.

Longtime Republican activist Jay Morgan, a former GOP executive director who has contributed to Johnson and Deal, said Oxendine has had a hard time winning over the party establishment.

“We’ve got a long history in Georgia of the establishment candidate winning the primary,” Morgan said. “The challenge for Oxendine is finding a way of making himself more acceptable to the establishment. Not that they’re not working hard at it, but I don’t necessarily know it’s paid any dividends for him.”

Some Oxendine supporters aren’t worried that he’s not a favorite of the party establishment. With five months to go before the primary and Oxendine’s fat campaign account, time and money are on his side.

Michael Opitz of Cobb County said any problems Oxendine may have had do not change the fundamental reasons they’re supporting him.

“My boss had a sign on his office wall and I shared the philosophy even though I didn’t have the words that were on the sign,” said Opitz, a former executive with AT&T and Lucent Technologies.

The sign said, “ ‘The older I get, the less I listen to what people say, and the more I watch what people do,’ ” Opitz said. “And I have found that to be one of the truths in life.”

Oxendine, he said, has been a true steward of his office.

“Look at the other issues swirling around about John,” Opitz said. “We’re all realistic enough to know that any time, in virtually any political race, if you have five or six candidates, the thing they have to do to get recognized is to create some kind of controversy and then attack.”

It’s a distraction, he said.

“That kind of thing is politics, and it’s uncalled for.”

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