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Two House seats draw fierce GOP primaries in Georgia

ATLANTA -- Runoffs looked possible Tuesday in two fierce Republican primaries for Congress -- one for a new district centered on Gov. Nathan Deal's old political turf in north Georgia and the other to the east that was redrawn to give Republicans a political advantage over the Deep South's last white Democratic congressman.

In north Georgia's new 9th District, early returns showed state Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville leading a three-way primary race with 42 percent of the vote with 27 percent of precincts reporting.

More than 50 percent was needed to avoid a runoff Aug. 21.

Conservative talk radio host Martha Zoller trailed Collins with 39 percent, followed by retired school principal Roger Fitzpatrick of Cleveland with 19 percent.

The seat was drawn to lean steeply Republican, giving the GOP primary winner an advantage in the general election against Democrat Jody Cooley, a Gainesville attorney who ran unopposed in the primary.

Meanwhile, voters in east Georgia's 12th District were choosing among four Republicans running for a shot at ousting Democratic Rep. John Barrow, who was forced to move to Augusta after lawmakers redrew his district last year to remove his political base of Savannah.

Early returns showed state Rep. Lee Anderson of Grovetown leading with 36 percent of the vote with 29 percent of precincts reporting, followed by Augusta construction company owner Rick W. Allen with 26 percent.

Augusta attorney and former Navy pilot Wright McLeod had 22 percent of the vote and Dublin attorney Maria Sheffield had 16 percent.

With such a crowded field, a runoff was likely.

Georgia had other contested congressional races on the primary ballot as well, but none so hotly contested. The 9th District was the only open seat among Georgia's 14 House districts. And Barrow in the 12th District is widely considered one of the most endangered House Democrats facing re-election in November.

In the north Georgia race, Collins played up his six years of experience as a state lawmaker -- including his most recent assignment as a floor leader responsible for shepherding Deal's legislative priorities through the state House. Zoller, who left her talk radio show on WXKT-FM to seek office, cast herself as a political outsider and touted endorsements by Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.

The third contender, Fitzpatrick, insisted he was more constitutionally conservative than Collins and Zoller. But he struggled to spread his message after raising far less money than his competitors.

The 12th District Republican race in eastern Georgia failed to produce a clear front-runner as its four contenders spent months working just to introduce themselves to voters across its 19 counties.

McLeod touted his military service as an F-14 fighter pilot and was endorsed by the last Republican to hold Barrow's seat, former Rep. Max Burns. Allen campaigned on his business experience, saying it made him best suited to help fix the economy.

Anderson, a hay farmer who's served four years in the Legislature, ran on a promise to cut his congressional salary by 20 percent if elected. Sheffield focused on door-to-door campaigning in hopes of rallying tea-party supporters.

All four 12th District contenders also put up significant sums of their own money for the race. Allen loaned his campaign $290,000. Anderson opened his wallet for $178,000, while McLeod and Sheffield each put up $100,000.

"I'm a businessman, so I voted for the businessman," said Bill Defer, a 54-year-old manufacturing manager, who voted for Allen in Columbia County, west of Augusta. "I think a lot of solutions for our economy right now will be in how we promote business. We need to create jobs."

Brian Levens, a 32-year-old teacher from Columbia County, said he was torn between McLeod and Sheffield but ultimately chose McLeod -- in part because the candidate's law office is just down the street from the library where Levens voted in Evans.

"I like the fact that he served 20 years in the military," Levens said. "I appreciate the fact that, even though he's an attorney, he's still a businessman."

Barrow, a four-term Democratic incumbent, has more than $1.3 million in the bank to defend his seat in November. Tuesday marked the first primary since 2006 in which Barrow faced no opposition from within his own party.

Six of Georgia's congressmen -- Democratic Reps. John Lewis and Hank Johnson and GOP Reps. Lynn Westmoreland, Rob Woodall, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey -- also faced some primary opposition Tuesday but were considered favorites to advance to the general election.