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Georgia governor primary: Has Sarah Palin left GOP in disarray?

Sarah Palin endorsed Karen Handel in Tuesday's runoff in the Republican primary for Georgia governor. Palin and her fellow 'mama grizzly' have taken aim at the state's GOP establishment.

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Visiting Atlanta Monday, Palin said Handel has faced the same attacks from the "good ol' boys" network – i.e., the Republican establishment – that South Carolina state Rep. Nikki Haley faced before capturing the Republican nomination for governor in the Palmetto State. Palin provided Ms. Haley a key boost before the primary.

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Palin's strong words came in primary that has gotten surprisingly nasty.

Handel has attacked Deal for leaving the House amid an ethics probe, and she taunted him by saying he needed "to put on his big boy pants" after he complained about negative ads. Deal has counterpunched by criticizing Handel's lack of a college degree and liberal views on homosexuality and abortion.

"This kind of bitterness, makes you wonder how well Republicans are going to be able to rally around whichever candidates wins," says Ms. Stuckey. Democratic candidate Roy Barnes, a former governor, "is certainly not hurt by Republicans burning their house down," she adds.

The plight of establishment candidates

The Georgia race does present a microcosm of issues playing out nationwide. Establishment candidates have fared poorly, with establishment conservatives having to fend off the tea-party allegation that they are Washington insiders and dealmakers who give lip-service about reducing the scope of government while in reality voting for pork barrel spending and bailouts.

For her part, Handel has touched three hot-button topics of the tea party insurgency: slashing state spending, promoting lawmaker ethics, and states taking a stronger role in immigration enforcement – à la the Arizona immigration law.

The race has drawn endorsements from all four potential leading Republican candidates for president in 2012, with Palin and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney endorsing Handel and Mr. Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich endorsing Deal.

"It's interesting that national figures decided to come in here, which leads me to believe that those individuals see this contest as having some significance," says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens.