UNION CITY, Ga. (AP) — The hotly contested Senate race in Georgia was all about the political power of women Thursday, with Sarah Palin defending GOP hopeful Karen Handel against dismissive remarks by a male rival and Handel arguing that she'd nullify any Republican war-on-women talk by Democrats in the high-stakes November election.
"I would really love to see (Democratic hopeful) Michelle Nunn drop the 'war on women' on me," Handel said to big applause at a luncheon with Palin for a county Republican women's group. Handel gained notoriety as the former Susan G. Komen for the Cure executive at the center of a public outcry over the breast cancer charity's decision, later reversed, to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.
But Nunn, the likely Democratic nominee, has so far steered clear of the theme that proved effective for Democrats in 2012. In her first ad, released Thursday, Nunn instead appealed to Georgia's independent voters by touting her leadership in the nonprofit Points of Light Foundation and mentioned its inspiration, President George H. W. Bush, by name.
Palin and Handel saved more of their ire for Republican rival David Perdue, a top candidate in the crowded GOP field who apparently put down Handel's qualifications during remarks captured on video.
In the footage, the former Dollar General CEO discusses the economy and the federal deficit and notes Handel's lack of a college degree. "There's a high school graduate in this race, OK?" he says. "I'm sorry, but these issues are so much broader, so complex."
Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, former Alaska governor and GOP star, leapt to Handel's defense.
"She pulled herself up. Nothing was handed to her on a platter, fed to her on a silver spoon," Palin said of Handel during a campaign event Thursday. "For those who would criticize and mock that, it really makes me question their judgment."
Handel, a former secretary of state, has said she left an abusive home as a teen and has used a message of overcoming obstacles as a key element of her campaigns. With Palin looking on, Handel took issue with Perdue's comments.
"Some in this race think the problems in Washington are a little too complex for a gal like me," Handel said. "I'm here to tell you that solving the problems in Washington is going to take guts and resolve."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported the video in which Perdue appears to dismiss Handel's education. His campaign spokesman said Thursday, "David was simply making the case that, based on experience, he is the best person in this race to help get our economy back on track so that we can start paying down the massive federal debt."
The Georgia primary scramble for both parties isn't until May 20. Seven Republicans and four Democrats are seeking their parties' nominations.
Thursday's early maneuvering reflects the political clout of women in Georgia and across the nation.
Female voters are always a key demographic and will remain so in the 2014 midterm elections. Every House seat and 36 in the Senate will be on the ballots and Republicans need gain only six seats in the Senate to win the majority.
Georgia's open Senate seat is among the country's most fiercely competitive, with female voters playing a key role.
According to the Georgia secretary of state, far more women voted in the last two elections than men. In 2012, 2.1 million women voted compared with 1.6 million men, and in 2010, 1.4 million women voted compared with 1.1 million men.
"Many women are ready for something that is not so polarizing, and probably a lot of men are, too," said Margaret Reiser, a volunteer and lead organizer of Women for Michelle Nunn.
Along with Handel and Perdue, Republican Reps. Paul Broun of Athens, Phil Gingrey of Marietta and Jack Kingston of Savannah are also running.
Although the female vote is strong, women don't necessarily vote in a bloc. Handel lost a Republican primary runoff for governor in 2010 by about 2,500 votes.
"I have found there are some who will vote just like their husbands vote, but the vast majority have their own thoughts on what they need," said Sue Everhart, former chair of the Georgia GOP who is backing Handel. Everhart added that Nunn is a formidable candidate, praising her father, former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, as "one of the finest senators this state has ever had."
"Karen can go toe-to-toe with (Nunn) because the men cannot," Everhart said. "Michelle Nunn looks like a Sunday school teacher. You go and be mean to her and people are going to say the men are beating up on her. But she and Karen can go toe-to-toe and it will just be two women in a catfight."
But Handel has struggled to raise money to compete with the other GOP candidates. Her campaign said Thursday it had raised $100,000 since Palin announced the endorsement last week.
Perdue, cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, and Kingston have been the money leaders while Gingrey has substantial funds from his prior congressional campaigns. Broun has been drawing support from conservative organizations, but he also trails in fundraising. Both Perdue and Kingston have been airing TV ads, and Perdue appears to be gaining momentum based on early polls.
Perdue launched another TV ad Thursday, emphasizing his "outside perspective" and "over 40 years of experience in the real world."
Republicans Art Gardner and Derrick Grayson are also running. On the Democratic side, Nunn is competing against Democrats Steen Miles, Branko "Rad" Radulovacki and Todd Anthony Robinson.
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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