Barnes, Oxendine lead race for cash in governor bid

ATLANTA -- If you believe the old political adage that money equals viability on the campaign trail, than the crowded race for governor of Georgia is starting to look a little more exclusive.

The latest round of campaign filings show that the 13 candidates have a combined $11.3 million to spend in an effort to claim the state's top job. But the wealth is concentrated among a few top contenders and one wild card, a political newcomer who is funneling $2 million of his own cash into the contest.

Democrat Roy Barnes and Republican John Oxendine have emerged as the clear money leaders. But while Barnes has broken away from the pack in the five-man Democratic field -- with a whopping $3.6 million raised since he entered the contest last spring -- the Republican race is not as clear cut.

Oxendine, the state's insurance commissioner, still has $2 million in the bank despite not being able to raise money since the Jan. 11 start of the legislative session. Oxendine has raised $3 million since launching his campaign two years ago and is widely considered the front-runner in the eight-candidate GOP field. But the crowded race, featuring several prominent former office holders and two sitting state legislators, is likely headed to a runoff. And there is a scrappy fight brewing for a berth in that two-person showdown.

In Georgia, candidates must win 50 percent plus one of the vote to claim victory.

And after Oxendine, the money -- and support -- splinters.

Republican Eric Johnson has shown fundraising muscle -- with $1.7 million cash on hand -- but his first quarter totals are inflated by $250,000 he loaned his campaign. Once you subtract that he raised $435,313.

That's not much more than the $380,633 former Secretary of State Karen Handel raked in during the first three months of the year.

Nathan Deal, who's been dogged by ethics allegations, saw his fundraising drop off substantially. He took in just $201,225 in the first quarter. Deal sunk $250,000 of campiagn funds into collateral for a loan, so that means his cash on hand is roughly equal to Handel's. She has $573,610 and he has $546,312.

Then there's the surprise late entry of Roy Boyd, a commercial real estate executive who's funneled $2 million of his own money into winning the Republican nomination. Boyd is suddenly neck-and-neck with Oxendine, the state's insurance commissioner, when it comes to money in the bank.

"For Republicans, the field (for No. 2) looks wide open right now," Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University, said.

Black said money is a key early test for candidates proving they have the resources to go the distance. The campaigns are only now beginning to rumble to life. Johnson, of Savannah, has posted the first TV ad of the contest, a spot which touts his work creating jobs. There have been scattered debates and a few small campaign rallies. But it's expected that the candidates will gear up in earnest after qualifying in April, when they will formally file paperwork to run.

Still, while the campaign filings provide a telling snapshot, the first quarter's numbers are skewed. Five of the 13 candidates -- Oxendine, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, House Democratic Leader DuBose Porter, State Sen. Jeff Chapman, and state Rep. Austin Scott -- have been barred from collecting donations while the state Legislature meets. All are expected to go into fundraising overdrive as soon as legislators wrap up their business, likely later this month.