It's hard to oust an incumbent, and that certainly applies to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
He is the clear favorite in Tuesday's Republican primary, and that's too bad. Not because he's been a lousy governor but because all incumbents deserve enough scrutiny that they have to give a fair accounting of themselves.
Deal, 71, a former U.S. House member from Clermont, Ga., who declined to attend any debates ahead of the primary election, is opposed by former Dalton Mayor David Pennington, 61, and State School Superintendent John Barge, 48.
Polls have the incumbent governor well ahead. One commissioned by WXIA-TV of Atlanta and released earlier this week gave him 63 percent of the vote and Pennington 15 percent. He must win 50 percent of the vote, plus one, in order to avoid a runoff. The winner faces unopposed Democrat state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, in the general election in November.
Pennington is a real-deal conservative, a small business owner who cut taxes and licensing fees in Dalton and gave his salary to charity. Indeed, he has been credited with improving the economy in the town during the Great Recession even as the rest of Whitfield County lagged behind.
Unlike Deal (until lately) and Barge, he opposes Common Core education standards and maintains education should be more in the hands of local school boards, teachers and parents.
"You can trace the decline of public education in this country and the state, first, with the centralization of the power and control in the state capitals and now into Washington," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently quoted Pennington as saying.
He'd also like to cut taxes, a stance he believes Deal abandoned after becoming governor. Indeed, he said, Deal raised taxes on car buyers and hospital patients and recently said tax reform in Georgia was "dangerous."
Barge, a former teacher, principal and administrator, and the governor sparred frequently before the school superintendent got into the race last summer, tangling about the Education Department's budget, graduation rates and a 2012 ballot measure that clarified the state's power to create charter schools.
Not surprisingly, he vows education will be his No. 1 priority and has declared he will increase school funding -- after years of cuts -- without raising taxes, overhaul high school course work to add a financial literacy requirement and no longer require some graduates to take advanced math classes.
Deal bases much of his campaign on the listing of Georgia in various rankings as the best state in the nation in which to do business. His campaign website also boasts that he reformed the tax code, reduced regulations and helped create more than 235,000 jobs by recruiting businesses to relocate or expand.
However, he took a heap of blame in the lack of emergency response to Atlanta's ice storm earlier this year and got slapped last month when a jury found the former director of the state ethics commission was forced out of office as retribution for investigating his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
For his part in the campaign itself, the governor was cleared of major violations but paid $3,350 in administrative fees for technical issues with his personal and campaign finance reports. After the jury verdict, he announced an overhaul of the state ethics commission but said it had been in the works for some time.
Yet, the tea party-supported Pennington believes the governor's office will turn over if Deal is renominated. He believes Deal's ethical challenges from deals before and after he became governor combined with Carter's ability to tap into his grandfather's contacts, the Hollywood elite, the mainstream media and national Democratic organizations will sink him even in deeply Republican Georgia.
That remains to be seen, of course, but in a potential head-to-head competition the governor has maintained a consistent lead and, most recently, held a 5.8 percent lead in the Real Clear Politics average of various polls.
Timing is everything in politics. Pennington had been mayor of Dalton only two years in 2010, when the governor's race did not have an incumbent. If he had been the ethical, second-term, tax-cutting mayor at that time (and gotten out ahead of Deal, then congressman for the area), he might be governor today. In 2014, although stranger things have happened, he is likely to become a conservative small businessman who gave up a mayoral post in which he was effective to become an also-ran candidate who lost to an incumbent governor.