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Palin-backed Handel leads Georgia Republican primary

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A candidate endorsed by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin won the most votes on Tuesday in Georgia's Republican primary for governor but fell short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff next month.

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, who trailed in opinion polls before Palin's July 12 endorsement, led with 34 percent of the vote, with 70 percent of precincts reporting.

She will meet former U.S. Representative Nathan Deal in the August 10 runoff. Deal was running second with 23.1 percent. The winner will face former Democratic Governor Roy Barnes in the November election to succeed Republican incumbent Sonny Perdue.

"The Palin endorsement really helped Handel," Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor, said on Tuesday.

Bullock said Handel's jump in the polls was comparable to the boost South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley got from Palin's endorsement in May. Haley won the Republican primary for governor.

"Handel's success will make Palin's endorsement even more desirable for candidates in other states," said Bullock.

Palin was Republican Senator John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential race and is seen a possible contender for president in 2012.

She has been active on the national stage, stumping for a number of Republican candidates, including women she likes to term "mama grizzlies."

On Monday, Palin put her stamp of approval on Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire. The state's former attorney general is in a seven-way race for the party's nomination for a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Judd Gregg. New Hampshire's primary is September 14.

(Writing by Matthew Bigg; Editing by Peter Cooney)