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Friday May 22nd, 2015 7:37AM

Republicans make final push in Georgia Senate race

By The Associated Press
WOODSTOCK, Ga. (AP) -- Georgia Senate hopefuls are making a final push in a Republican primary that could end with a handful of votes deciding who advances to a likely runoff.

It's one of the most closely watched Senate battles in the country: The Republican primary showcases the GOP's internal struggle over substance and style that has raged since the tea party emerged after President Barack Obama's election.

The eventual nominee will have to regroup and face Democratic favorite Michelle Nunn in a general election that will help determine which party controls the Senate for the final two years of Obama's presidency.

Polls open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Registered voters can choose which party primary ballot they want.

Businessman David Perdue, one of the front-runners among seven Republicans, said Sunday he's trying to bridge the gap between tea party conservatives and the Republican establishment, with his plea for voters to elect a former corporate CEO rather than his experienced politician rivals.

"My message is forget about what your single issue is or what we disagree on," he told The Associated Press after attending Sunday worship at Woodstock Baptist Church, one of the state's largest congregations.

He added, "I'm arguing right now that we have a common enemy: a debt crisis. And we have the right principles in our party to get the economy going again, reduce the size of government, get the regulators off the backs of small businesses and then watch this economy pop."

Perdue's task got harder for him this week after he suggested that spending cuts alone wouldn't repair the nation's balance sheet. His opponents framed his comments as code for "tax increase." Perdue insisted again Sunday that he was advocating generally for policies aimed at economic growth, which, he said, would drive up tax collections.

Perdue predicted the attacks will "backfire" because voters "know my positions."

Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah also has tried to satisfy the tea party and the establishment, while avoiding both labels. He has the backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with almost $ 1 million in television advertising from the political titan that's aiming explicitly to quash the tea party insurgency in the 2014 midterm elections. But Kingston's endorsement list also includes names like Brent Bozell, an archconservative writer and activist based in Virginia, and Sean Hannity, the Fox News television and radio personality.

Unlike Perdue and Kingston, former Secretary of State Karen Handel embraces the tea party label. She campaigned Sunday with radio host Erick Erickson, also the editor of the popular conservative website RedState.com. She welcomed former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to Georgia for earlier events. She has an endorsement from the national Tea Party Express, whose leaders include Georgia resident Julianne Thompson, also co-chairman of the Atlanta Tea Party.

Erickson told about 100 Handel supporters Sunday that "we want a senator who tells the other side `no' and tells our side `no' when they deserve it."

Handel insisted her campaign isn't about convenient labels. "What it comes down to is Reagan conservatives versus big-spenders, Reagan conservatives versus the go-along-get-along crowd," she said. "People are frustrated, and they want a fighter."

Several recent polls suggest Perdue, Kingston and Handel will battle for two runoff spots, with Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun trailing.

Gingrey spent Sunday alongside family members and volunteers calling supporters to encourage them to vote, and he scheduled a telephone "town hall" meeting.

For all the wrangling over who is the most conservative, Tuesday's results will be heavily influenced by geography and voter loyalties forged before the latest campaign.

Handel hails from north Fulton County, where she once served as commission chairman, and she narrowly lost the Republican nomination for governor four years ago. She's focused her campaign on the northern arc of metropolitan Atlanta, the largest source of Republican votes in the 18-county region that includes about 60 percent of the state's 10 million residents.

Gingrey has represented northwest Atlanta suburbs and outlying counties for more than a decade in Congress.

Kingston has represented much of south Georgia for more than two decades, and he touts long-standing ties with the state's agriculture community and military installations.

Broun's core support is tied more to his socially conservative credentials than to his Athens-based congressional district.

Perdue, meanwhile, is left to cut across those advantages with the "outsider" appeal. But he's still trying to capitalize on his roots in central Georgia with campaign help from his cousin and fellow Warner Robins native, former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
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