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It's runoff time!

Handel and Deal will duke it out, Barnes runs away with the Dem nomination and the Ox bites it

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Following the July 20 primaries, the Republicans now find themselves in as good a situation as one could hope.

Sure, the GOP learned on Tuesday that, come fall, they'll be facing a well-funded, well-known gubernatorial challenger, one who already served as governor — and is well-primed for a bruising general election.

But they already knew that.

The good news for Republicans is that they emerged from the GOP primary with their two strongest candidates in front. Those two will now face off in an Aug. 10 runoff.

Although former Congressman Nathan Deal is pretty dinged — no pun intended — following a congressional investigation into allegations that he used his former position to benefit his auto salvage business, he still maintains strong support. Karen Handel, a former secretary of state who outperformed Deal in the primary, has strong name recognition — made stronger by an endorsement from Republican darling Sarah Palin.

Most astonishing is fellow GOP hopeful John Oxendine's plunge. Long the front-runner in polls, the state insurance commissioner saw his support melt away in the days leading up to the primary.

Amid cheers, Handel took the stage at a Perimeter-area ballroom around 11 p.m. Tuesday.

In her pep speech to supporters, Handel brought up illegal immigration, transportation and education as some of the issues facing the state.

"We can't go back to the 'bad ol' days of King Roy,'" Handel told supporters. She said she'd heard that Roy Barnes wasn't too worried about the boys — but was concerned about facing "the girls."

Her message to Roy: "Bring it on."

As expected, Barnes barreled over his opponents, even leading Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker by nearly 36 points during some of the vote count. Dem contenders David Poythress and DuBose Porter both couldn't escape single digits.

Flanked by family and Mayor Kasim Reed at Atlantic Station's TWELVE hotel, Barnes told supporters that Republican rule had turned Georgia into a laughingstock state obsessed with insignificant issues and controlled by lobbyists.

"Tonight is the beginning to take our state back," Barnes said.

In other races, Vernon Jones' political career took another bruising when he came in a distant second to Congressman Hank Johnson to represent parts of DeKalb, Rockdale and Gwinnett counties in Washington, D.C. Johnson will face GOP businesswoman Liz Carter in November.

The Democratic primary for attorney general, one of the most vitriolic fights of the campaign season, ended with veteran southwest Georgia prosecutor Ken Hodges trumping Rob Teilhet, a state representative and lawyer from Smyrna.

And state Sen. Vincent Fort showed a strong lead over his opponent, 36-year-old Grady High School teacher Graham Balch. The two had waged a fierce, ground-level battle in the weeks before the primary.

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