Thu., June 14, 2012 1:41pm (EDT)

Republican Primary Heats Up
By Orlando Montoya
Updated: 2 years ago

SAVANNAH, Ga  —  
Former Naval office Wright McLeod is the fundraising leader in the GOP race so far, but faces attacks on his voting record from Rick Allen.  (photo Wright McLeod campaign)
Former Naval office Wright McLeod is the fundraising leader in the GOP race so far, but faces attacks on his voting record from Rick Allen. (photo Wright McLeod campaign)
The last remaining white Democratic Congressman from the Deep South faces his toughest re-election campaign yet.

Four Republicans are fighting for the chance to face four-term Democrat John Barrow in the fall.

Whoever wins the GOP nod will have some headwind against the incumbent.

Republicans smell blood in Augusta.

That's where John Barrow moved after GOP lawmakers redrew his district to include more conservative voters

The Blue Dog Democrat says, he's heard predictions of his political demise before.

"I've been around the barn a couple of time before with partisan gerrymandering," Barrow says. "The point is, folks now have an even better idea than they did before that I'm a member of Congress who will listen to the voters and vote in their best interest."

But his Democratic base of Savannah is now out of his east Georgia 12th Congressional District.

Former Naval officer Wright McLeod wants to be the Republican to face Barrow in the general election.

"It is a district that because of redistricting leans slightly conservative over the liberal side," says McLeod. "So the idea for Republicans to take a seat in the House is huge. We believe, I believe, I can do it."

McLeod is the fundraising leader in the GOP race so far.

The field has three first-time candidates and a state lawmaker each trying to out-Republican the other.

Dublin attorney Maria Sheffield is courting Tea Party voters focusing on her history as a grassroots organizer.

"This race is just about electing a true conservative who comes from our movement." Sheffield says. "I think it's about going to Washington and not just simply casting a vote but it's about doing the hard work that needs to be done."

At a recent debate in Vidalia, the four candidates appeared on stage together.

They all agreed on the issues: a balanced budget, low taxes and less regulation.

Grovetown State Representative Lee Anderson sought to differentiate himself as the only previously-elected candidate.

"It's time to send someone that has the experience to Washington to balance a budget." Anderson says. "I have been on the school board. I've been a county commissioner. I've been a state representative. I've balanced a budget in all three of them."

Augusta construction firm owner Rick Allen talked about his business background.

He pressed front-runner McLeod on his voting record.

"You know, Wright, you have voted in one Republican primary other than this one since 1998," Allen said.

"Not true," McLeod answered.

"Well, we have the voting thing to substantiate that if you'd like to see it," Allen said.

McLeod admits to voting in Democratic primaries, but says he did it only to stop Barack Obama and so his vote had more influence in Democratic-leaning Augusta.

Allen also accused McLeod of improperly filing campaign finance forms.

"We've got that evidence," Allen said. "We've given it to the media. And I don't know what else that we can do other than for Wright to explain exactly where he broke the law."

"Wait," McLead interjected. "I was trying to do that. That's what I was doing. You could have come to me from the very beginning."

The jabs clearly turned off some voters.

After the debate, Vidalia resident Stan Lewis says, he's inclined to vote for one of the two who stayed out of it.

"That's what wrong with politicians." Lewis says. "They spend too much time with character assassination and not enough time on issues."

Without much ideological difference between the candidates, much of the race has focused on the McLeod-Allen spat.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter and debate panelist Jim Galloway says, that only could boost the other candidates.

"It's about campaign disclosures," Galloway says, "and voters rarely are care about that sort of stuff but one interesting thing is that while Rick Allen and Wright McLeod were going back and forth, Maria Sheffield, who is trying to grab the Tea Party vote, was just grinning."

The July primary is likely to end in an August run-off.

Then after that, expect millions of dollars in outside campaign cash as Barrow and his Republican challenger vie for one of the few competitive seats in Georgia's House delegation.

COMING SOON: GPB JUST WRAPPED UP ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEWS WITH ALL FOUR REPUBLICAN CANDIDATES. WE'RE IN THE PROCESS OF EDITING THOSE NOW. WE'LL BE POSTING THEM -- ALONG WITH BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION ON THE CANDIDATES -- HERE AT THIS WEBSITE. KEEP LISTENING TO GPB RADIO AND READING GPB.ORG.