ATLANTA -- Former Gov. Roy Barnes swept to a commanding win in the Democratic race for governor on Tuesday, while Karen Handel and Nathan Deal will meet in a runoff three weeks from now to decide the Republican nominee.
Handel -- who's running to become Georgia's first female governor -- called her lead against a field of six male opponents ''a big milestone for women across this state.''
Handel surged to the top of the GOP pack with the support of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who vouched for her conservative credentials.
''We're going to put an end to Roy's political career once and for all,'' Handel said.
Deal -- who has called Handel too liberal for Georgia -- hammered home that he is the ''true conservative in the race'' and said he looks forward to squaring off with Handel.
''I have a record that I think stands me in good stead as a conservative,'' the former congressman from Gainesville said.
Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who at one point was the presumed front-runner with a big cash advantage, saw his fortunes fade in the campaign's final days amid a steady barrage of stories questioning his ethics. Oxendine said he was proud he ''changed some things and helped some people's lives'' in his 16 years as insurance commissioner.
''I'm not the first person to lose an election, and I won't be the last,'' Oxendine said. ''I do love life, and I love Georgia.''
Former state Sen. Eric Johnson conceded defeat late Tuesday.
''We're certainly going to be proud of our efforts and what we've done,'' Johnson said.
With 91 percent of precincts reporting, Handel had 34 percent of the vote to Deal's 23 percent. Johnson received 20 percent, while Oxendine had 17 percent.
Barnes cruised to an easy win in the first electoral test of his comeback bid.
While Handel and Deal began attacking each other, Barnes quickly turned his sites to the November general election and his would-be Republican rivals, saying they have brought the state to its knees.
''They are both members of the team that brought Georgia to the place where we are right now,'' he said to a cheering ballroom at an Atlanta hotel. ''They are part of the team that gave tax breaks to special interests and then had to lay off teachers and shorten the school year to cover up their mistakes.''
''Our children cannot afford that team any longer,'' he said.
With 91 percent of precincts reporting, unofficial returns showed Barnes with 65 percent of the vote. Attorney General Thurbert Baker was a distant second with 22 percent.
Ousted from the governor's mansion in 2002, Barnes jumped back into the fray last year and has dominated the Democratic contest with a folksy -- but focused -- campaign.
Barnes and Baker were among seven Democrats on the ballot. The others were House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, former Georgia National Guard Commander David Poythress, ex-Ray City Mayor Carl Camon, state Rep. Randal Mangham and businessman Bill Bolton. Each drew less than 6 percent of the vote.
The other Republicans on the ballot were state Sen. Jeff Chapman, states' rights activist Ray McBerry and Wal-Mart sales associate Otis Putnam. Each drew less than 4 percent of the vote.