ATLANTA - Karen Handel said Sunday night she would endorse Nathan Deal - the man she has blasted as "a corrupt relic of Washington" - if he won the Republican nomination for governor.
Deal refused to reciprocate as Georgia's bruising three-week GOP runoff for governor hurtled into the homestretch.
Meeting in their final debate before Tuesday's runoff election, Handel and Deal avoided some of the more caustic personal attacks that have characterized the race and largely stuck to a polite discussion of issues from water to toll roads to zero-based budgeting.
Handel and Deal were the top vote getters in the state's July 20 primary and are vying for the right to take on Democrat Roy Barnes in the November general election.
But the tough tone of the race - which has fractured Georgia's ruling Republican Party - spilled over occasionally into the 30-minute forum sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club and aired statewide by Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Asked if she would support Deal should he win, Handel said she would do what's best for Georgia.
"And having a Republican and not letting Roy Barnes get his hands on the state is what is going to be in the best interest of all Georgians," the former secretary of state said.
But Deal said his campaign hasn't divided the party.
"I don't think I'm the candidate that has attacked our fellow candidates in this primary election process. It's going to take some time to heal some of the wounds that have been inflicted here," Deal said.
While Deal sought to claim the high ground, he has run a recent ad attacking Handel for providing taxpayer money to a gay rights group and supporting domestic partner benefits for gay couples, which she denies.
They did split over whether elected state officials should be able to do business with Georgia. Handel said no because it creates a conflict of interest. Deal disagreed, arguing part-time legislators must be able to earn a living. Deal - whose own business dealings with the state prompted a congressional ethics investigation and a federal grand jury probe - said business with the state would be all right as long as it is disclosed in a transparent fashion.
Deal has said he has done nothing wrong in connection with his Gainesville auto salvage business and said he is not the target of a federal grand jury.
Handel stressed her executive experience in the private sector and as secretary of state, pressing Deal to describe when he had ever balanced a budget.
"It's true I haven't worked for a Fortune 500 company like you have but I have managed a small business," Deal said.
Handel - who has faced questions about her lack of a college degree - argued she would work to give others an opportunity through Georgia's financially troubled HOPE scholarship.
"It is precisely because I don't have a college degree that I am going to be the strongest champion of HOPE in a long, long time," Handel said.