LAWRENCEVILLE -- John Linder's right-hand man is one step closer to succeeding him in Congress.
Rob Woodall, who served as Linder's chief of staff for a decade, was the top vote-getter in Tuesday's Republican primary, taking more than 35 percent of the vote in an eight-man race.
He must face Jody Hice, a former minister who hosts a political radio show, in an Aug. 10 runoff for the Republican nomination, according to unofficial results.
Late Tuesday, Woodall lead the 7th Congressional District race with 27,057 votes, or 36 percent. His lead was never contested, while Hice and state Rep. Clay Cox, who had been considered the race's frontrunner, battled for second place.
With 187 precincts out of 189 reporting, Hice held the lead with 19,743, or 26.4 percent, over Cox's 14,906, or 20 percent.
"It feels good. We always expected this race to go to a runoff, but I never expected to be the guy in first place," Woodall said at a campaign party at Digger's in Lawrenceville.
While all of the candidates had pledged support of Linder's FairTax proposal, which would do away with federal income tax in favor of a national sales tax, Woodall literally helped write the book on the idea. He had the endorsement of Linder and Neal Boortz, the radio personality who also co-authored the book.
Woodall said Tuesday's vote was an indication that the issue is on top of voters' minds.
"I believe that is going to be a mandate to go to Washington and make the FairTax a reality," he said.
Hice, who gained national attention with billboards using the communist hammer and sickle to symbolize President Barack Obama's "change," said he could win the runoff.
"I'm just calm. I'm at peace with this," he said from his gathering at 550 Trackside in Lawrenceville. "We've run a good campaign. I think things will look good when all is said and done."
At Cox's get-together, the mood was tense as election results were tallied.
Later in the night, the Lilburn man said he remained hopeful for more Gwinnett votes but wished Woodall and Hice well in a runoff.
"I don't know what else we could have done," Cox said. "We left it all on the field. We ran an honorable campaign."
As the only candidate with political experience, Cox bore the brunt of the negative attacks, but he said he wasn't sure if that was a factor in the outcome.
"It's disappointing, but the results are what they are," he said. "What it's about in the end is the voters."
The winner of the Aug. 10 primary runoff will face Democrat Doug Heckman in the November general election.