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In Georgia primary, crowded field spars for U.S. Senate nod

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate race in Georgia will be crucial to Republicans' bid to regain majority control, but with no clear front-runner in Tuesday's primary election, there is likely to be an extended and expensive fight for the party's nomination.

The candidate leading the polls, former Reebok, Dollar General and Pillowtex Chief Executive Officer David Perdue, is a political neophyte who emblazoned his campaign RV with "The Outsider" and poured his personal wealth into the contest.

He says "politicians are like diapers" and need to be changed frequently, a shot at the crowded Republican field that includes three sitting congressmen. His opponents have attacked his business record and questioned whether he is in touch with voters after years of working abroad.

The muddied waters of the Republican race make a July run-off almost certain, analysts say, with neither Perdue nor any of his six challengers expected to get 50 percent plus one vote on Tuesday to become the party's nominee.

That could help Democrats, who view the seat opened up by Republican Saxby Chambliss' retirement as one of the few they have a chance to gain in the fight to keep control of the Senate, where Democrats have a 53-45 majority.

Polls show the Democrats' likely primary winner, Michelle Nunn, former chief executive officer of President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light organization and daughter of onetime U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, has a shot at recapturing her father's seat in a state that has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 14 years.

"She can get Democrats united and focus on the fall elections while the Republicans are still knocking each other all over the place," said Merle Black, professor of government at Emory University.

The Republican nominee could be more battle-tested after the nominating fight, however, and will benefit from the national party's efforts to retain the seat, Black said.

"It doesn't do (Republicans) any good to pick up six seats elsewhere and lose Georgia," Black said. "That means a lot of Republican national money is going to be focused on Georgia."

Polls suggest the Republican contest has narrowed to a three-way race between Perdue, U.S. Representative Jack Kingston and former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.

Kingston has represented the 1st congressional district since 1993, is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and leads the race in fundraising.

Handel, who has Tea Party support, resigned from the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure in 2012 after being involved in a controversial effort to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.

Perdue had put nearly $3 million of his own money into the race as of April 30, though his $4.6 million war chest trailed the $5.6 million raised by Kingston, campaign finance records show.

Perdue supports term limits for Congress, cutting government spending and taxes and repealing the Affordable Care Act.

His message could appeal to anti-Washington sentiment among Georgia's Republican voters, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor.

"It plays well with some voters for Perdue to be the outsider," Bullock said. "He has painted himself as such while painting the other leading candidates as being cut from the same cloth - professional politicians."

(Reporting by David Beasley; Writing by Colleen Jenkins)

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