Palin nods, and suddenly a Georgia race wakes up

Does anyone still remember when the Georgia gubernatorial race wasn’t all about Sarah Palin?

You know, before she suddenly breathed life into what one wit termed a “Zombie Campaign”? Before her endorsement of Karen Handel broke the heart of one of her biggest fans, leaving her feeling like some scorned heroine in a romance novel? Before Nathan Deal, the “true” conservative Republican candidate Palin passed over, asked her anyway to please come moderate a series of debates?

Less than two weeks ago, things were what passed for politically normal here. Then Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee wandered onto Facebook to endorse Handel, instantly transforming the state’s watching-paint-dry-dull Republican primary into a juicy straight-outta-Wasilla spectacle.

And suddenly Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state who’d trailed by nearly double digits in the polls, ended up winning the seven-candidate race by a startling 11 percentage points.

That set up an Aug. 10 runoff between Handel and No. 2 finisher Deal — and kicked the feverish Palin-inspired speculation level up a few more notches: Would she campaign here for Handel? (Nobody knows, though the campaign gets asked about it nonstop.) Why had she thrown her weight behind a candidate she scarcely knew? (Her only explanation: Handel is a “commonsense conservative” and underdog.)

Best of all, would Deal dare to take the gloves off in dealing with the Palin endorsement, let alone two super-empowered female politicians operating in his own backyard (three, if you count Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who’s also endorsed Handel)?

“I call it the one-two punch,” chuckled Martha Zoller, who hosts a syndicated political talk radio program out of Gainesville. “That’s a bunch of really strong women there.”

‘Zombie Campaign’

While Palin’s imprimateur-via-Facebook wasn’t a first — in May, she endorsed South Carolina GOP gubernatorial primary winner Nikki Haley — it was certainly a bit surprising. Unlike New Hampshire and Iowa, where Palin has also made high-profile endorsements, Georgia’s not a key primary state for the 2012 presidential nomination.

Handel and Palin had met only twice, at a governors event at the 2008 Republican National Convention and in Georgia stumping for Sen. Saxby Chambliss later that fall. Their personal lives barely intersect: Palin, a college graduate and mother of five, grew up in a two-parent home in Alaska; Handel, married for 18 years and childless, moved out of her alcoholic mother’s Maryland home at 17 and managed to finish high school but not college.

And finally, not to be unkind, but nobody but the candidates and their mothers had been paying much attention to this primary for months.

“It was the Zombie Campaign, where you had this pile of candidates no one cared about just moving forward,” said Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of the popular right-leaning blog and a conservative commentator on CNN. “It was really a race without a heartbeat. That all changed with the Palin endorsement.”

An unabashed Handel supporter, Erickson, who also runs the Georgia politics site Peach Pundit, clearly has an ex-zombie in this fight. But who, all of a sudden, doesn’t?

From Deal, who Thursday called on Palin and fellow Handel-endorser Mitt Romney to moderate a series of debates here, to Democrats praying that the Republican infighting isn’t resolved by November, it’s not easy finding someone unaffected by Palin’s decision to put the paddles to the heart of Georgia politics.

That includes voters, some of whom admitted Palin’s endorsement was all they needed to go on.

“I knew we were due to have a new governor, but I didn’t know a whole lot about it,” said Paulene Shedd, 68, of Fort Valley, who voted for Handel in the primary. “I didn’t know very much about her until Sarah endorsed her. ... I just kind of trust her judgment.”

Despair and delight

So does Beverly Smith Herrington — most of the time. You’d have to go pretty far to find a bigger Palin fan, which probably explains why the 72-year-old Deal backer from Lawrenceville sounds personally let down by the endorsement.

“I’ve been cheering [Palin] on when she backed other people in other states, but then it happened to me and I felt differently,” said Herrington, who thinks Handel comes off like a “teenage whiner” and questions why she wasn’t endorsed by Georgia Right to Life. “All of a sudden I thought, ‘I don’t really appreciate her doing this in my state.’ ”

Herrington has poured out her anguish over the Palin and Brewer endorsements on the former’s Facebook page: “I am despondent this morning. I have been caught between two women I admire and one woman I don’t admire.” She’s also e-mailed Palin to find out why she’s just not that into Nathan Deal.

“If she would write me back and tell me, ‘I studied all of the people who are running for governor in Georgia and Karen Handel stands out for me,’ that would be one thing,” Herrington sighed. “To me it would make her an even bigger person if she said, ‘Look I made a mistake and I’m not endorsing anyone [in the runoff]. I’m going to ride this one out.’ ”

That’s not very likely. But Deal isn’t pulling his punches, or missing an opportunity to use Palin’s endorsement of Handel against — hey, wait a minute! — Handel. The former nine-term congressman, who’s got his own big-name endorser in Newt Gingrich, had described Handel as “the most liberal Republican” in the primary. Since Palin’s announcement, his campaign has tried to point out that Handel’s position on abortion is “in stark contrast” to his. And, ahem, to Palin’s.

It’s a predictable line of attack, particularly for an August runoff, when only the most committed conservative voters tend to turn out. Then again, predictability tends to go right out the window where Palin is concerned.

Hitting the “send” key on her computer and recording a “robo-call” was all it took for her to reanimate and reshuffle the primary to Handel’s benefit. An actual stump stop here could similarly affect the runoff, which explains why Gary Chapman of Alpharetta posted this plea on Palin’s Facebook page: “You need to come on down to Georgia and lend your mama grizzly some support! The false charges against her are nonstop!”

‘Year of the outsider’

Enter the Palin Protective Shield.

“Most of the dirt the Deal campaign will throw will deal with socially conservative things,” said Erickson, who claims he broached the idea of the endorsement with Palin’s people early on and then got to inform the Handel campaign. “Sarah Palin sort of absolves her of all that. There’s not a person in Georgia who doubts Sarah Palin’s social conservative bona fides.”

Nor her excellent Internet connection. Hours after the primary votes were counted last Wednesday morning, Palin sent out a tweet that Handel was going to “ ‘Bring it on’ in a runoff against career politician.”

It was a play on Handel’s campaign slogan. If it also conjured up a certain maverick-y ex-vice presidential nominee, apparently, so much the better.

“Governor Palin is an outsider with a record of taking on establishment politicians, and that’s exactly who Karen is,” said Handel campaign manager Dan McLagan. “If you really look at the people Governor Palin is supporting, they’re outsiders wanting to shake up the status quo. It’s shaping up to be the year of the outsider.”

Well, at least one outsider from Alaska.

Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.