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Collins, Zoller dance around the establishment

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A curious dynamic shift is underway in the Republican runoff contest for Georgia’s ninth congressional district, where outsider and establishment monikers have been radically reshuffled between a state lawmaker and conservative radio talker after a spate of prominent national endorsements have thrown the race into flux.

The pair landed in a virtual tie in Tuesday’s primary contest–little more than 700 votes separated their margins–and were forced into an August 21 runoff.

Doug Collins entered the race as the prohibitive favorite, understood by most Peach State political observers to have the blessing, if only privately, of Governor Nathan Deal, for whom he served as a floor leader in the last legislative session.

His fundraising receipts have consistently led his two opponents, stockpiling nearly double what chief rival Martha Zoller reported at the end of the most recent fundraising quarter.

But the Gainesville Republican found himself in unfamiliar territory in the last two weeks of the race, his campaign bracing from successive rounds of prominent endorsements for his opponent.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum became on Friday the third former presidential candidate to endorse Zoller, whose bid also counts former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin among its supporters. Other former White House hopefuls to endorse include former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.

Left with few other options, Collins played his rival’s new-found political celebrity against her, juxtaposing the endorsements of these out-district interlopers with own his local roots. Like Barack Obama before her, Collins said, Zoller was compensating with sizzle for no substance.

His missive to supporters on Friday had a distinct down home flavor, emphasizing familial ties to the region he said he was blessed to call home.

“My opponent thinks she can influence this election with outsider supporters who have no idea what makes Georgia so great, and we saw her Obama-style campaign strategy of ‘celebrity over substance’ during the primary,” he wrote. “I’m here to tell her she can’t hide behind her big name friends, and voters in the 9th District are going to prove that once again on August 21st.”

Zoller, though, is owning her elevated status among national conservative bigs. Asked to quantify the financial impact of the endorsements, an aide told Tipsheet Friday that the campaign had raised “thousands of dollars” in the intervening period.

“Endorsements from Gov. Palin, Speaker Gingrich and Sen. Santorum have fired up the conservative base in North Georgia and helped the campaign raise thousands of dollars to beat professional politician and self-proclaimed ‘Gold Dome Insider’ Doug Collins,” Zoller campaign manager Ryan Mahoney said by email.

- James Richardson