bodybuilding_back_smallMaybe it says something about how next year’s governor’s race in Georgia is shaping up that the early jostling has involved two back surgeries.

The more widely publicized of these was performed, reportedly with good results, this week on Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. He had been viewed as a top contender in the race for the Republican nomination until he announced at a tearful press conference earlier this month that a back problem had convinced him to abandon the governor’s race and run for his current job.

There was so much skepticism about the real reason for Cagle’s departure that he showed his X-rays and MRIs to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jim Galloway as proof he genuinely is in too much pain to take on such a big race. No doubt pain did have a great deal to do with Cagle’s surprise decision, but the timing – a week after the end of the session, long enough to get on the phone and test the climate for political fundraising – suggests money might have had a little to do with it also.

images-14Since Cagle’s departure, the Republican dominos have fallen in a striking pattern. Three potential contenders from the Atlanta metro area – U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, and state House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter – have decided they’re not getting in the governor’s race.

Again, there must be a lot of reasons why they all opted not to get in this race. But a casual glance at the business pages suggests one overriding factor: Any campaign that might have counted on Atlanta development money is finding out there’s a lot less of it available in this election cycle. (Not to mention that there are four Republicans already dialing for dollars: Secretary of State Karen Handel, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, state Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton and states rights advocate Ray McBerry.)

Meanwhile, two candidates from outside metro Atlanta who weren’t on the radar for this race have jumped in it. Senate President Eric Johnson of Savannah switched from the lieutenant governor’s race, thus avoiding the returning Cagle and upping the ante on his own ambitions. U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, who wasn’t even on the short list of Republican congressmen interested in the race, has also been letting colleagues know he intends to announce soon.

Both add some intriguing dimensions to the race. Johnson has the potential to benefit from the GOP’s growth in eastern Georgia, and he’s already put together an organization. As an up-and-coming legislator and during his first couple of years in Congress, Deal enjoyed a best-and-brightest image in the Democratic Party that reminded some of Roy Barnes. Since his party switch in 1995, Deal has swung more to the right on issues like immigration, and he never really assumed the leadership position in his adopted party that some had envisioned for him as a Democrat. But it will be interesting to see what cross-party appeal he might have next year.

images-24Speaking of Barnes, the other back surgery was the one performed on him back before Christmas of last year. He told a former staffer the week after that operation that he was about 50-50 on getting in the race. If he was 50-50 after going through something like that, Barnes might seem likely to make his fourth bid for governor. But sources who’ve talked with him in recently haven’t seen any signs that he’s committed.

Until he makes his intentions known, which should be some time in May, the Democratic field consists of three people with whom the former governor has important connections: David Poythress, whom Barnes appointed state adjutant general; Attorney General Thurbert Baker, with whom Barnes carefully coordinated his 1998 and 2002 races, and House Minority Leader Dubose Porter, who was a floor leader for Barnes when he was governor. Whether Barnes is in this race or not, he’s going to have a lot to do with how it’s run.

Editor’s note: This article was distributed by the Georgia Online News Service.

Photos: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (center) and former Gov. Roy Barnes (bottom right).

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter is the South's leading political reporter. He is currently editor of the Southern Political Report and senior vice-president of its parent company, InsiderAdvantage, a media and polling firm. For more than 40 years, he has worked for newspapers in Montgomery, Ala., Columbia, Md., Charleston, S.C. and Atlanta, Ga. At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was a reporter, editor of the Sunday Perspective section, national editor, and for 20 years, chief political correspondent.