ATLANTA, Aug. 9, 2010 -- Calling the governor's race here "epic" and "historic," former Alaska governor Sarah Palin wrapped her arms around Karen Handel, the former secretary of state who is hoping to be Georgia's first female chief executive.
Palin whipped up the crowd of several hundred in a hotel ballroom here, just one day before the Republican runoff that will end a bitter three-week fight between Handel – one of Palin's "Mama Grizzlies" – and her rival, former Rep. Nathan Deal.
"Are you ready to 'Bring it On'?!," she said, using the Handel campaign's slogan.
The audience of enthusiastic supporters responded with cheers and chants of "Sa-rah!"
"It's epic. It's historic," Palin said, explaining why she became so interested in this race, pitting Handel against a veteran member of the state's Republican establishment.
"The eyes of America are on you, Georgia, to see if you really do want that positive change and to get rid of that 'good-ole-boy' network that really gets in the way of just doing the thing that the people who want to hire a good governor are expecting of their government."
The Handel campaign has accused Deal of being "corrupt," pointing to allegations that while in Congress he pressured state officials into awarding a no-bid contract to a business he owns. Deal resigned from the House earlier in the year, curbing an ongoing ethics review, but speculation of a federal grand jury probe has dogged him.
The GOP establishment in the state firmly backs Deal. All but one member of Georgia's congressional delegation supports him, and he has earned the endorsement of native son Newt Gingrich and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who campaigned for Deal in Gainsville this past weekend. And he has the National Rifle Association in his corner.
"They said we didn't have a chance," Handel told supporters before Palin spoke. "They said we were the outsiders; that we weren't going to have enough money; that we weren't going to get any endorsements. Yet, three weeks ago, we shocked them all," Handel said, referring to her first-place finish in last month's GOP gubernatorial primary. The result earned her the spot in the runoff against Deal, who came in second.
Race in Georgia Particularly Dirty
Palin – who introduced the phrase "Mama Grizzlies" into the political lexicon this election cycle – laughed off the idea she's only endorsing Handel because she is a woman.
"Now, that is just so stupid, and it's just so passé, really," Palin said to laughs, arguing that no one would make the same claim of a man who had endorsed Handel. "We're endorsing her because she is the best candidate for Georgia."
Handel would push back against a federal government that is increasingly encroaching upon states' rights, Palin argued.
"We need strong governors who will fight what the federal government will want to do to our states – that overreach," Palin said.
The Republican race in Georgia has been particularly dirty, with current Gov. Sonny Perdue saying at his annual fish fry this past weekend that it might take time for the two sides to heal after the runoff.
In addition to Handel's allegation that Deal is "corrupt," and her suggestion at a debate that he put on the "big boy pants" to toughen up against her campaign's negative ads, Deal has recently noted Handel lacks a college degree. Supporters of Deal have painted Handel as being soft on abortion and gay rights, inflammatory accusations in this race.
Last month, POLITICO quoted Melanie Crozier, the director of Georgia Right to Life's Political Action Committee, as saying that "under Karen Handel's laws, Handel would have felt like it was OK to go in and abort" Palin's son with Down syndrome, because she would allow for abortions in the case of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is threatened.
At the event here in Buckhead, Palin said the anti-abortion group "kinda crossed a line," with the attack which she called "pretty disgusting."
Handel's campaign called Crozier's statement a "cruel and revolting lie," and Palin suggested it made her want to behave like a "Mama Grizzly," who, she has famously said, stands on her hind legs to defend her cubs.
"Yeah, you want to get me to leave the commercial fishing grounds and fly all the way across the country – across four time zones – to defend a candidate's position?" Palin said, seeming to suggest the attack was that which – more than anything – prompted her appearance here.
Palin Endorsement Not Always a Plus
"Despite what they're throwing at her, Karen is proudly pro-life. She'll walk the walk and she will fight to protect the sanctity of life, even for – especially for – those who are most vulnerable among us, our special kids."
Recent surveys show a Palin endorsement can boost a Republican candidate's chances of winning a primary, but shed doubt on whether her backing will help a hopeful win in November.
Among Republicans, Palin is the most popular among prospective GOP presidential candidates in 2012, according to a Gallup survey released in mid-July, with a 76% favorability rating that beats out Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
A Pew Research/National Journal poll released last week shows 41% of Republicans nationwide say they'd be more likely to vote for a candidate whom Palin campaigned for, while only 15% said her endorsement would make them less likely to do so.
But among independents, only 15% said Palin's efforts would make them more likely to vote for her pick. Nearly half, 47%, said an endorsement would make no difference and 36% indicated they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate Palin supported.
Overall, among all voters, eight-in-ten told Pew pollsters an endorsement from the former Alaska governor would either make their vote for a candidate less likely, or make no difference at all.