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By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The freewheeling Republican primary for an open Senate seat from Georgia was always expected to be a bruising affair. New polling confirms just how much.

Ahead of next week’s primary election, voters remain highly divided among the five main candidates, all but guaranteeing a tough, costly runoff in July. Meanwhile, the Democrat, Michelle Nunn, is in a statistical dead heat with each of them.

In a year in which Republicans hope to take control of the Senate, the Georgia race is one of only two where Democrats currently see an opportunity to go on offense. Republicans need to win a net of six seats to gain the Senate majority. If Democrats can grab the seat being vacated by Republican Saxby Chambliss, the GOP task would be much harder.

In the primary, the top spot among the Republicans currently goes to David Perdue, the millionaire former executive who has never held public office — but shares a family name with his cousin, a former governor. Perdue has maintained an early lead among about one-fourth of primary voters, according to surveys released Monday by the NBC News/Marist Poll and the St. Leo University Polling Institute.

But Perdue’s hold is tenuous, despite his high favorable ratings. None of the GOP candidates appears likely to reach the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

The question of who else makes the runoff appears to be a textbook case of the tea-party-versus-the-establishment party warfare that has defined Republican Senate campaigns this cycle.

Karen Handel, the former secretary of state who is backed by Sarah Palin, and Jack Kingston, the affable Savannah-area congressman with Chamber of Commerce support, are battling for the No. 2 spot, according to both polls.

Kingston leads slightly, with 18 percent in the St. Leo poll and 16 percent in NBC/Marist, but just nominally. Handel has about 15 percent.

Two other members of Congress trail. Libertarian-leaning Rep. Paul Broun and conservative Rep. Phil Gingrey have run less than stellar campaigns and are likely pulling from each other’s bases of conservative support.

The Nunn team likely would have preferred one or more of the conservative candidates to emerge from the primary. Nominating one of the hard-right Republicans would provide Nunn a contrast — and an opening among moderate-minded Republicans, particularly suburban women outside metro Atlanta, who find tea party politics too extreme.

But Nunn’s campaign has largely refrained from meddling in the GOP primary as Senate Democrats have been known to do (see the 2010 races of Harry Reid in Nevada and Claire McCaskill in Missouri and, in this cycle, Kay Hagan in North Carolina). That rough-and-tumble approach is not Nunn’s style, as the former nonprofit executive for George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light foundation positions herself above the partisan fray.

Nunn faces a tough climb to turn Georgia from red to blue, but with her own famous family name and the state’s changing demographics, she has a number of advantages.

Both polls found a tight general election matchup at this point, regardless of the Republican nominee. Although some GOP candidates did slightly better against Nunn than others, the differences were generally within the polls’ margins of error. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released over the weekend also showed a tight race between Nunn and the Republicans.

Photo: Be The Change, Inc via Flickr
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