If I were a gambling man, I'd bet a wad, even at this early date, on Secretary of State Karen Handel to win the Republican primary for governor next year.
Handel has served on the Fulton County Commission and escaped indictment. She has turned out to be a passable secretary of state, though she has been a bit too partisan for my taste. And Gov. Sonny Perdue has joined her team as her No. 1 adviser. The Perdue alliance may be the most important of her attributes. Perdue has already delivered a grand favor to Handel. He made last week's front-runner for governor, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, so nervous that he complained of severe neck and back trouble, and dropped out of the governor's contest.
That may be just the first good deed Perdue delivers to Handel. She will need all the help she can get. Georgians usually don't cotton to women candidates for governor, and we've had a run of bad luck with ladies elected to lower constitutional offices.
Former Georgia Schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko, the first woman to be elected to statewide office, is still serving time in prison for stealing money from the state to finance her 2002 bid for governor, a bid that crashed and burned before it got off the ground. The present female school superintendent, Kathy Cox, recently joined the growing ranks of Georgians forced into personal bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, Handel labors on as secretary of state, handing down one decision after another on election regulations to help her GOP colleagues in their quests for public office. She will have to do more than that to become governor. She must recruit the same coalition of interests that brought Perdue to power and left Gov. Roy Barnes a stunned and defeated Democrat.
Here are the anti-Barnes folks who gave us Gov. Perdue:
· Teachers voted en masse for Perdue because they believed Barnes had turned his back on their demands for tenure and started overusing the word "accountability" in his campaign for better schools. Many of those same teachers are now suffering a bad case of buyers' remorse. Gov. Perdue has whacked their budget by $2 billion, enlarged class sizes, cut pay and generally ignored Georgia's most pressing need: improving K-12 education. How will those teachers vote next year - for a more humble Democrat Roy Barnes and his crowd, or for the Handel-Perdue alliance?
· Law enforcement officers across the state were peeved at Barnes for installing a super chief in Atlanta - a commissioner of public safety to oversee all peace officers.
Like teachers, the lawmen in 2002 voted heavily against Barnes, who is already courting them for reconciliation next year. They appeared to be mostly for Cagle until he was struck by strained muscles. How Handel woos the cops, deputies and troopers will be interesting to watch.
· North metro Atlanta residential owners were solidly against Barnes when he proposed building a Northern Arc highway through the northern suburbs and exurbs north of Atlanta. A hard core of anti-arc voters remains active in Forsyth County. Some other folks have in the meantime become sympathetic to Barnes. They're tired of traffic and want something done. Handel will have to be careful with this group, and perhaps not allude to Gov. Perdue at all. The incumbent's transportation to-do list is blank, except for a bunch of words about reorganization.
· The flaggers - the guys and gals who wanted to restore the Confederate cross on the state flag - became Perdue's loudest and most visible allies. After his inauguration, Purdue pushed the flaggers aside and would not even include the rebel emblem on a ballot for a new flag. Handel may try to recruit the Civil War crowd, but she will do so at her own peril. Most folks began suffering flag fatigue years ago and want to move on to something else. Besides, the flaggers may not forget so easily how they were double-crossed.
So there we have it. Karen's Conundrum: Can she attract Perdue's old allies for governor - a group largely alienated and angered by Perdue after his election?
Or will Barnes or some other Democrats bust up the coalition and bring at least part of that angry crowd back into the donkey fold?
Oh, that's right. Barnes hasn't even announced for governor. No matter what happens, my bet on Handel stands.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.