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Karen Handel, Nathan Deal clash in runoff debate

Republican gubernatorial candidates Karen Handel, center, and Nathan Deal, right, speak with FOX 5 anchor Russ Spencer before a debate, Sunday, August, 1, 2010, in Atlanta. The two candidates will go head-to-head in an Aug. 10 runoff election for the Republican nomination in Georgia's governor's race. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)<br><br>

Republican gubernatorial candidates Karen Handel, center, and Nathan Deal, right, speak with FOX 5 anchor Russ Spencer before a debate, Sunday, August, 1, 2010, in Atlanta. The two candidates will go head-to-head in an Aug. 10 runoff election for the Republican nomination in Georgia's governor's race. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)

ATLANTA -- The Republican runoff campaign for governor turned hostile Sunday night as Karen Handel blasted Nathan Deal as corrupt and Deal fired back that the former secretary of state's sharp attacks show her campaign lacks substance.

"It's frankly time to put the big-boy pants on because, candidly, if you can't handle this, how are you going to handle (Democratic nominee) Roy Barnes?" Handel said at a debate sponsored by Fox 5 Atlanta.

"Everybody's a crook but her, she says," Deal fired back.

"It is unfortunate that we are seeing a continual, ever-increasing negative campaign from Ms. Handel," he said. "I think that is an indication that if you don't have an issues that you can talk about then try to crucify your opponent."

The sharp rhetoric from the runoff rivals comes with just nine days remaining until the Aug. 10 runoff where voters will select a GOP nominee to face Barnes in November. Handel and Deal were the top two vote-getters in the state's July 20 primary.

Handel went after Deal repeatedly and said she stands by a campaign TV ad labeling Deal "a corrupt relic of Washington."

"I think clearly if you look at the record there are some issues of corruption here," Handel said.

She was referring to Deal's business dealings with the state which were the focus of a congressional ethics investigation. A federal grand jury is also looking into the arrangement, in which Deal lobbied state officials to maintain a lucrative state contract for his Gainesville auto salvage business. Deal has maintained he did nothing wrong and said as far as he knows he is not the target of the investigation.

And Handel argued Deal does not have clean hands. A TV ad Deal ran during the primary assailed Handel for allegedly flip-flopping on domestic partner benefits for gay couples.

"I find it a little bit disingenuous on your part frankly all of the squealing about 'negative campaigning'" Handel said.

"Facts are facts and this is a race for governor, things are tough," she said. "Campaigns are tough."

Deal said he's focusing on policy.

"This is a campaign where we ought to be talking about the issues," he said. "That is what I've tried to do and that's what I will do during this runoff period."

Handel and Deal clashed throughout the 30-minute debate, sparring over taxes and abortion and education.

Deal promoted his plan to create a flat income tax rate, saying it is "a positive concrete proposal that no other candidate has put forward."

"Nathan's plan is nice but it is the same thing we have been having, nibbling around the edges of tax reform," Handel said. She is looking forward to recommendations from a state panel studying the state's code and said it is "very realistic" to look at erasing the state's income tax -- even thought it would eliminate roughly half of the state's revenue stream.

That drew a rebuke from Deal.

"I don't think its responsible to say you're going to obliterate the personal income tax ... you talk about laying off teachers? You do that and you're going to see massive layoffs."

Handel said she isn't proposing just throwing out the income tax without a plan to make up the cash but said she wants sweeping, bold changes in the tax code to make the state competitive.

"What you just heard when you asked for specifics is the same cliches, the same generalities that we've heard in a canned campaign speech this entire election cycle" Deal said.