Republican gubernatorial candidates from second left, John Oxendine, Jeff Chapman, Nathan Deal, Eric Johnson and Ray McBerry wait with WSB TV anchor John Pruitt, left, before taping the Republican gubernatorial debate at the WSB-TV studio, Friday July 16, 2010 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gregory Smith)
ATLANTA -- With Georgia's primary just 36 hours away, the candidates running for governor took their parting shots Sunday night in separate Democratic and Republican debates.
The presumed front runners in each race found themselves under fire -- including one who wasn't even in the room.
Republican Karen Handel has refused to share the stage with a longshot rival candidate accused of an inappropriate relationship with a teenager. Handel -- who emerged as the Republican to beat in a new poll out on Sunday -- was represented by an empty podium at Sunday night's debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club.
But the former secretary of state was clearly on the mind of her rivals.
State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine began the assault with his first question to Nathan Deal: "Mr. congressman, why do you think that Karen Handel is unfit to be the next governor?"
Deal, of Gainesville, was only to happy to answer.
"I think it's important for the Republican party to nominate someone who demonstrates the conservative values that most Republicans hold dear," Deal said. "I believe that Ms. Handel does not demonstrate that kind of solid background."
Republican Eric Johnson piled on, calling it "incredible" that she would not stand before the people of Georgia.
"Not going toe-to-toe with your opponents is not a good sign when it comes to facing the Democratic nominee much less Barack Obama," the Savannah Republican said.
Johnson also took aim at his fellow Republicans for failing to release their past years of tax returns as he had done.
Oxendine defended his acceptance of a large number of campaign contributions from those in insurance, saying that in his 16 years regulating the industry he has cracked down hard and been an advocate for the consumer.
The Republicans are brawling for one of two spots in an expected runoff Aug. 10, which will be necessary if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote.
In the Democratic debate, former Gov. Roy Barnes had a bullseye on his back.
Barnes' rivals took aim at his vote against making Martin Luther King's birthday a holiday, efforts to weaken teacher tenure and making promises he can't deliver.
Attorney General Thurbert Baker said Barnes can't pay for the education reforms he is pushing.
"What I'd like to know governor is which taxes will you raise to pay for your promises or which promises will you break?" Baker asked.
Baker is pushing a proposal to add bingo to the lottery to pay for classroom improvements. Barnes has said he would repeal tax exemptions to pump up school funding but he has yet to say which ones from the $10.9 billion to choose from.
Barnes, meanwhile, kept his eye on the Republicans he hopes to face in November ripping into a plan backed by Oxendine and Handel to eliminate the state income tax, which brings in half of the state's revenue.
"It's the most irresponsible act I have ever heard," Barnes said, painting a doomsday scenario for the state if the income tax was scrapped.
"You either have to close the public schools down or you have to let all the prisoners loose, build no roads or bridges, pave no roads, give assistance to no person and cut off all grants to local governments."
House Minority Leader DuBose Porter lit into Barnes for essentially abandoning Democrats after losing the governor's mansion in 2002.
"When you came back to run for governor you said you weren't sure whether you wanted to be a Whig or a Democrat. Roy are you a Whig or a Democrat?"
"Well, I'll tell you this," Barnes replied. "I'm tired of the nuts on both sides."
Barnes -- who a recent poll found leading his rivals with 54 percent of the vote --faced the lion's share of questions from his opponents.
That left one lesser-known rival -- state Rep. Randal Mangham -- grateful when a question came his way.
"It is such an honor to be able to speak again," Mangham said.
Also running are former Georgia National Guard Commander David Poythress, ex-Ray City Mayor Carl Camon and Bill Bolton.
On the Republican side, state Sen. Jeff Chapman, Ray McBerry and Otis Putnam are also on the ballot.
Allegations of a relationship between McBerry and a teenage girl kept Handel from the debate. He has denied the charges and said the relationship was proper.