SAVANNAH — One candidate is a hay farmer whose campaign has relied on a network of political contacts made over the years as he climbed from the local Farm Bureau to the Georgia Legislature.
The other is a political newcomer running on his experience as a business executive and a barrage of TV ads largely paid for with $540,000 from his own pocket.
Votes will decide in a runoff election Tuesday whether state Rep. Lee Anderson of Grovetown or construction firm CEO Rick W. Allen of Augusta wins the Republican nomination in east-central Georgia's 12th Congressional District. The victor will face U.S. Rep. John Barrow, the Deep South's last white Democrat in the U.S. House.
The stakes are high for the GOP, which believes it has a strong shot of defeating Barrow after the district was redrawn by Republican state lawmakers last year. Anderson emerged as the front-runner among the four candidates in the July 31 primary by finishing more than 5,000 votes ahead of Allen, the runner-up.
Both men have gone on the attack in the three-week runoff period. Allen has poured money into TV ads that blame Anderson for supporting tax increases that they say hampered economic recovery in Georgia. Anderson countered with ads and mailings calling Allen a false conservative because he's donated money to Democrats and to a group that supports them. And both candidates are crying foul.
"Watch out! Rick Allen's brought out the manure spreader," an announcer says in an Anderson ad that features a cartoonish splatter of mud landing on his rival's face.
"It's despicable. It's a new low," said Allen, though he acknowledges writing a check in 2002 to a Democratic congressional candidate, Champ Walker, when both were members of the same Bible study class.
Allen, 60, kept up the offensive Thursday, appearing alone next to an empty podium at what turned out to be a one-sided debate broadcast statewide by Georgia Public Television. Anderson not only skipped the debate, but seemed to be keeping a low profile altogether.
Anderson, who's running for Congress after four years in the state House, declined requests for an interview by The Associated Press made over a three-day period.
"He is trying to stay focused on meeting voters and raising money," Anderson's campaign manager, Reagan Williams, said in an email. The campaign also declined requests for details of Anderson's schedule.
Allen, meanwhile, argued that ducking debates won't help Republicans oust Barrow, a four-term congressman and Harvard-educated lawyer.
"You can't beat John Barrow and hide from him," Allen said at the TV debate. "Why are you hiding from me?"
Keeping quiet is a front-runner's strategy that could pay off for Anderson, 55, as long as his supporters are able to fire up voters. He carried 13 of the district's 19 counties — from his home turf of Columbia County near Augusta to rural Coffee County 160 miles to the south.
Anderson boasts of endorsements from fellow lawmakers, mayors, sheriffs and other officials throughout the district. Also backing him are two ex-rivals from the July primary, attorneys Wright McLeod of Augusta and Maria Sheffield of Dublin.
A former president of his county Farm Bureau, Anderson won much of his support in farming communities such as Bulloch County and Toombs County in Georgia's Vidalia onion region. His campaign signs with their tractor logo became common sights along rural highways.
"That was one of the biggest things that appealed to the residents — they could relate to him more," said Travis Chance, a Republican city councilman in Statesboro. "You have this good ol' country guy who could be your grandfather who wants to go up to Washington."
Anderson didn't fare so well in the district's largest city, Augusta, and surrounding Richmond County. He got just 827 votes there — barely a third of Allen's votes in his home county.
Bob Young, a former Augusta mayor and Republican, said he suspects Allen will ultimately prevail because he's focused his attacks on tax issues that are critical to GOP voters.
"Rick's used the runoff campaign period to really hammer home that Lee is someone who supported tax increases," said Young, an Allen supporter. "It's the pocketbook issue, I think, that resonates."
After spending $290,000 of his own money on the primary, Allen loaned his campaign $250,000 more for the runoff. Much of it went to ads hammering Anderson for supporting the transportation sales tax referendum that most Georgia voters rejected last month, although the Augusta region was one of the few who approved it. Anderson voted in the state House to put the tax on the ballot and said he would support it at the polls because Georgia needs roads and bridges. Whether that hurts him remains to be seen.
Anderson, who loaned his campaign $178,000 for the July 31 primary, has also come under fire for voting in 2010 to impose a 1.45 percent tax on hospital revenues, which was passed to secure federal matching funds for Medicaid. The Georgia Hospital Association supported the tax hike.
Anderson insists his overall record shows he's worked to cut taxes. Gov. Nathan Deal backed him up by issuing a statement saying, "Lee Anderson strongly supported my conservative tax reform agenda, which cut taxes on Georgia families and businesses." The governor stopped short of endorsing Anderson.
Allen had to defend himself this week when Anderson mailed fliers accusing him of making donations that supported not just Democratic congressional candidate Walker in 2002, but also the two Democrats that Allen's been running against — Barrow and President Barack Obama.
While an Augusta attorney with a similar name — Richard E. Allen — contributed $250 to Barrow in 2006, there's no record Allen the candidate has. He did give $2,500 to the Associated General Contractors of America between 2002 and 2009. That group gave $1,000 to Barrow in 2010, and supported Obama on stimulus spending.
Allen said he stopped giving to the group because it supported Democrats. He apologized for donating $1,000 to Democrat Walker, his fellow Bible study member, a decade ago.
"Frankly it was a mistake, and I should've never done it," Allen said.
Turnout in runoff elections is typically low and there aren't many other races Tuesday to coax voters back to the polls.
In rural Coffee County, Anderson vs. Allen is the only rematch on the ballot. And that concerns Jimmy Kitchens, a county commissioner who's supporting Anderson.
"The hardest thing in a lot of these counties where there are no local elections is getting people to go back and vote in a congressional election," Kitchens said.