ATLANTA --- Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Karen Handel and John Oxendine continue to be nagged by a stream of allegations about what they did years ago.
The two are tied for first in the GOP primary, according to an InsiderAdvantage poll released Friday. Their 18 percent leads Nathan Deal's 12 percent and Eric Johnson's 8 percent. With a 3 percent margin of error, the July 1 survey of 914 likely Republican voters represented a drop for Oxendine from 23 percent, a jump for Handel from 14 percent, and a slide for Deal from 15 percent in the firm's last survey on May 18.
Pollster Matt Towery noted that the latest survey was conducted as Handel's four-color mailer addressed to women primary voters was arriving in homes across the state and before Johnson's TV ads had much chance to build momentum. Johnson, though, did rise from 5 percent to 8.
If the poll was good news for Handel and Oxendine, it came on the heels of a couple of trying weeks for both.
For Handel, the former secretary of state, the week included a scathing e-mail sent to party activists by blogger Bill Simon. In it, he details information that seems to refute her campaign's explanations about her relationship to the Log Cabin Republicans.
For the man who calls himself The Ox, the weeks included two reports of alleged shenanigans from before his election as insurance commissioner 16 years ago.
In Handel's case, she and her staff have repeatedly denied she ever joined the Log Cabin group, an organization of gay-rights supporters. When a former officer in the group supplied copies of e-mails to reporters, her spokesman said they were manufactured. When a copy of her check for $75 dues turned up, he said she had never lived at that address and that wasn't the amount of the dues.
Simon's e-mail traced the address on the check to a commercial mailbox store, now a UPS retail store, where customers can rent a box. He also found an online archive of the Log Cabin web site showing the amount of dues at the time.
"Being 'ethical' doesn't merely mean adhering to legal standards printed in a law book about how one carries him/herself in a profession," Simon wrote. "It also means adhering to basic standards of being truthful about things, and having a moral compass that always points to the path of integrity."
The mailer Handel sent this week to women describes her as the only ethical candidate, one who will clean up state government. The danger in making such a claim is that it's harder to explain away charges that she and her staff have flatly lied about the Log Cabin dues repeatedly. Four years ago when Mark Taylor and Sonny Perdue were both tied to separate scandals, each man shrugged them off, and voters were left to view the allegations as "offsetting penalties."
It was a blogger who dug up one of the unflattering stories about Oxendine. Erik Erickson who dug up a 1988 story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how Oxendine sought to improve his chances of getting elected as an Al Gore delegate to the Democratic National Convention --- yes, as a Democrat --- by busing in about 40 residents of a home for the mentally retarded that he was attorney for.
The story Erickson posted June 24 contained the quote, "The problem that I had, and I think other people from all over the 9th Congressional District had, was that this was an abuse of people," said Stephen Farrow, a Dalton lawyer who was elected as a delegate for Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. "Everyone was, I think you can fairly say, appalled and repulsed by the events that took place."
Thursday, WSB-TV in Atlanta aired a story about comments a Houston County judge made in court to Oxendine about his behavior toward the opposing attorney in a 1991 lawsuit, also before the commissioner won office.
The story quoted the transcript of Judge Lewis McConnell saying, "Mr. Oxendine, let me tell you what. If I knew I could put you in jail right now for contempt of court, I would do so....We don't need people like you practicing law in the state of Georgia."
Oxendine's campaign manager, Stephen Puetz, gave the station a statement reading, "For over a year our opponents have been attacking us with unfounded accusations and worn-out stories from the past. What a judge said to John 20 years ago has no bearing on what kind of governor he will be."
Both candidates hope the voters agree with Puetz about the past not mattering. Voters, though, who can't sort out tax policy or competing proposals for transportation and water, can quickly understand character.
If they begin to have doubts about a candidate's character, especially ones they don't know well like Oxendine and Handel, then they'll start looking elsewhere. That could leave The Ox and Handel on the defensive and erase the results of that new poll.
(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has covered Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at email@example.com or (404) 589-8424.)