ATLANTA -- Lewis Massey bowed out of the Democratic gubernatorial runoff today, throwing his support to rival Roy Barnes in hopes of avoiding a bloody runoff battle and strengthening the party's chance of retaining the governor's office in November.
Massey and Barnes appeared jointly with Gov. Zell Miller to make the announcement.
Massey said he entered the race to help build a bright future for Georgia families. "I believe the best way to reach those goals now is to suspend my campaign for governor and endorse, wholeheartedly, Roy Barnes as the next governor of Georgia," he said.
"What Lewis Massey does here today shows great judgment and great character, putting his personal and political ambitions aside for the people of Georgia," said Miller.
Barnes, a veteran state legislator, finished with 49 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary, according to unofficial returns. Massey, Georgia's secretary of state, had 28 percent.
The Democratic contest is set to go to an Aug. 11 runoff. Massey said he will stay on the ballot, since his complete withdrawal would throw the third-place finisher, David Poythress, into a runoff with Barnes.
But Massey said he will not actively campaign. Barnes still must win a majority of the runoff votes to face the likely Republican nominee, Guy Millner, in the fall.
Miller, a Democrat, is completing his second term and cannot seek re-election.
On Wednesday, the Democratic runoff was shaping up as a renewed bout of mudslinging.
Barnes signed a pledge to avoid negative advertising but warned that if Massey didn't sign by this morning he would assume his rival planned "a continuation of the negative attacks he began in the primary ... and I will defend myself vigorously."
At his own news conference, Massey said, "bring it on," and pledged "to tell the truth about my record and about Mr. Barnes' record as well."
He continued attacking Barnes for votes he cast against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill in 1984 and the Equal Rights Amendment in 1975 and for opposing a mandatory sentencing bill.
Barnes has apologized for voting against the King holiday and explained he felt the Equal Rights Amendment gave Congress too much power. He says Massey is distorting his legislative record to make him appear soft on crime when he has supported many tough anti-crime measures.
Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, said it was unlikely Massey could overcome Barnes' powerful primary lead.
Millner, who finished first in the Republican primary, already is planning "a full-court press" against the eventual Democratic nominee. But it still isn't certain he's escaped a runoff.
"I'm elated," he said Wednesday as nearly complete but unofficial returns showed him just above the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff with former Attorney General Mike Bowers, who had 40 percent.
Official results will not be completed until Monday, the secretary of state's office said. Even if the official count shows that Millner has enough to avoid the runoff, Bowers said Wednesday he may seek a recount.
Millner had been expected to win the nomination handily against Bowers, who wounded his campaign last year by admitting a long-term adulterous affair. One pre-primary poll suggested Millner would get 60 percent of the vote.
"Whether or not Millner has a runoff, he's in a much weaker position than before because he has not shown the ability to unite the Republican party," Emory University political science professor Merle Black said. "Virtually half of Republican primary voters wanted someone other than Millner."
Millner, who owns a multimillion-dollar temporary employment agency, was the Republican nominee for governor in 1994 and for U.S. Senate in 1996, narrowly losing both times.
He acknowledged Wednesday he wished the margin had been higher but he added, "We'll take any win we can get. This is the first time in recent Georgia history that a Republican candidate has won a primary without a runoff."
Just over 900,000 of Georgia's 4.1 million registered voters cast ballots in the gubernatorial races in both primaries, a 22 percent turnout. State officials had forecast a 32 percent turnout.