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Republican Nathan Deal holds a slim lead in the governor's race, with Democrat Roy Barnes within striking distance, a new poll released this week shows.

Deal leads Barnes 45 percent to 41 percent, according to the poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Georgia Newspaper Partnership. But given the margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, the race could be even closer. Libertarian John Monds received 5 percent of the vote in the poll.

Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., which conducted the poll, said the Nov. 2. election could come down to turnout as well as how voters perceive Deal's recent spate of financial problems, which were revealed after nearly all of the poll was conducted.

Barnes, the former governor seeking a return to the office he lost in 2002, must persuade black voters to come to the polls, Coker said, noting that the trend across the nation is that GOP voters are chomping at the bit to cast a vote.

"You keep hearing about the Republican wave, all these angry conservative-leaning independents who are going to come out," Coker said. "Whether or not that happens will probably, in the big picture, tilt things one way or another."

Blacks made up about 30 percent of the electorate in the 2008 general election, when then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was running for president.

Coker and others believe that to be a high-water mark in the state and that blacks are unlikely to turn out in the same numbers this year. Typically, a higher black turnout translates into good news for Democrats.

"The total number of black voters who vote this time might be 200,000 more than voted in 2006," Coker said. "But if the number of white voters who vote increases by 300,000 ... it's not just how many blacks turn out, but it's proportionate. That's the big question this time."

Barnes maintains a massive lead, 83 percent to 5 percent, among black voters, while Deal doubles up among whites, 58 percent to 27 percent. Monds, who is black, gets support from 4 percent of black voters and 5 percent of whites.

Deal also has a huge lead among men - 51 percent of male voters say they'll vote for the Republican, compared with 37 percent for Barnes. But Barnes has a slight lead among women, 44 percent to 40 percent.

"We're seeing the return of the angry white male," Coker said. "It's consistent in many other state polls I'm doing right now; men are just going Republican big time."

But Coker said there also has been a "natural gender gap" since the 1980s in which men are increasingly voting Republican and women more often are backing Democrats.

The poll also showed voters continue to be concerned about the economy and are voting for the candidate they believe can do the most to help.

Nearly half of all poll respondents - 47 percent - said the economy and jobs are the top issue in the race for governor. Education, named the top issue by 15 percent, was a distant second, followed by government spending, taxes and the state budget with 12 percent. No other issue was in double figures.

The candidates, meanwhile, express confidence and said the poll gives them reason for optimism.

"We always said this is going to be a hard-fought election," Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said. "We're very happy to be in the lead, and as Georgia voters get to know Nathan Deal better over the next six weeks, we feel that lead is going to hold and it's going to carry Nathan into the governor's office."

Robinson said Deal continues to lead despite having had a brutal Republican primary and runoff, while Barnes coasted to the Democratic nod.

"We have faced much tougher challenges, and through all that we have maintained the lead," he said.

Barnes said he thinks the poll likely is accurate.

"I wouldn't doubt that that's about right," he said. "This state is not as Republican as people think it is, or it would have been over 50 percent [for Deal] regardless. Partisans usually don't move - you're fighting over the middle."

But that middle - meaning among those who consider themselves independent voters - is breaking for Deal. The poll found that self-identified independents are supporting Deal 44 percent to 35 percent for Barnes and 8 percent for Monds.

Still, Barnes feels good about where he is in the race.

"I feel better about this race than any I've ever run," he said.

Mason-Dixon's Coker said the race also could hinge on how voters react to the ongoing news of Deal's financial problems.

The AJC reported this week that he faces a $2.3 million loan that comes due in February and that all of his assets together, including his home, are not enough to pay it off. The loan is the result of a failed business venture launched by Deal's daughter and son-in-law that Deal and his wife invested in.

Deal already has lost $2 million on the business. It later was revealed that Deal and a business partner have outstanding loans for $2.8 million on their Gainesville salvage business - loans that Deal originally failed to report on state disclosure forms.

This week's revelations follow ethics questions that Deal has had to answer over his efforts in 2008 and 2009 to protect an agreement his salvage business had with state government.

The AJC reported in August 2009 that Deal personally intervened with state officials to preserve the way the state inspects rebuilt automobiles, a program that earned his company $300,000 a year.

Those stories led to a congressional ethics investigation that found Deal, a former member of the U.S. House, likely violated several federal ethics rules.

Deal has said he has done nothing wrong, and he resigned from Congress before a final determination was made.

But, Coker said, voters will have to decide for themselves what to make of the situation.

"The whole thing hinges around Deal's ethical problems, the perception of those problems," Coker said. "If voters think he hasn't done something terrible, he'll probably win, but if this thing really catches on, that might be the answer to the turnout question."

If voters decide Deal has done something wrong, Coker said, "they may go vote for other things and not pull the lever in the governor's race."

Contact Aaron Gould Sheinin at asheinin@ajc.com.

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