WATKINSVILLE, Ga. - Seeking promotion to the U.S. Senate, Republican Rep. Jack Kingston avoids a yes-or-no answer when asked if he considers himself a tea party candidate.
Instead, the 11-term congressman offers a lunch crowd at a northeast Georgia community center a plea for a unified GOP that can sell limited-government arguments to a wider audience. Kingston doesn't mention any of his seven primary opponents. But the subtext is clear in a field that includes Kingston's House colleagues Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey.
Broun, a physician, has called evolutionary theory "lies from the pit of Hell," and he's sponsoring a drawing to give one of his supporters a free AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Gingrey, an obstetrician, has defended failed 2012 Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's controversial comments on rape and abortion.
It's a free-for-all that highlights the GOP's internal struggle between arch-conservatives and the business establishment. Some Republicans worry that Democrats could score an upset victory in Georgia's Senate race in November, as they did in Missouri and handful of other recent Senate and governor's races, if moderate voters find the Republican nominee too extreme.
"It's a microcosm of what we're fighting over nationally," said Kirk Shook, GOP chairman in Oglethorpe County, about 80 miles east of Atlanta.
Also in the fray: David Perdue, a businessman and cousin of a former Georgia governor; and former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel.
Most observers expect a May 20 primary to produce a July runoff.
Meanwhile, Democratic favorite Michelle Nunn has quietly framed herself as a problem-solver above the rancor she blames for Washington gridlock. Nunn hasn't sought public office before, but she comes with pedigree and connections. Her father, Sam Nunn, represented Georgia in the Senate for 24 years. For years she has run former President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light Foundation, giving her a claim to bipartisanship and established relationships with wealthy donors.
Democrats believe that's a winning strategy in a state where population growth has closed the partisan gap.
The winner will succeed Republican Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring.