ATLANTA (CNN) – A political surprise created a wide open race for Georgia governor next year, as the leading Republican contender was forced to drop out Wednesday because of medical problems.
An emotional Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle announced he was leaving the race because he will undergo surgery on his neck and spinal cord to fix nerve damage. Choking up and pausing to fight back tears, he called the decision to withdraw "difficult personally," but said we "are all dealt certain cards that we have to face."
At least three other Republicans are seeking the GOP nomination to replace outgoing Governor Sonny Perdue. The GOP is trying to hold the Governor's office after winning it in 2002 in Georgia for the first time since Reconstruction. Three Democrats are already in the race as well.
The 43-year-old Cagle had been positioning to succeed Perdue, and said "things were strongly moving our way."
Cagle said he believed the "state is at a crossroads" in the 2010 election, but was "at peace with his decision."
"I feel a deep obligation to Georgia's future, but I also have a strong sense of duty to my family," he said. "Georgia needs a strong governor, but (my wife) Nita and my boys also need a dad who can provide for them well into the future. The only way I can balance both obligations is make the difficult decision to end our campaign."
Cagle said he will seek re-election as lieutenant governor instead. He said after that the complicated operation, "the good news is that my odds of making a full recovery without long term nerve or muscle damage are high. Left untreated, the lasting affects could be severe." He sought treatment after experiencing pains in his shoulder, chest and back.
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said the stunning announcement from Cagle "further confuses" the race, with Cagle so far "running far ahead of the opposition."
He said several high-profile Republicans "may reassess the race" with Cagle out. He said attention could focus on the Georgia congressional delegation, where Congressman Jack Kingston and Lynn Westmoreland had previously decided not to seek the Governor's office.
Bullock said "there may be some pressure put upon" Sen. Johnny Isakson to reconsider running as well.
On the Democratic side, Bullock said the changing GOP landscape may also nudge former Gov. Roy Barnes, defeated for re-election by Perdue in 2002, close to entering the race. Bullock said he would immediately become the "Democrat with the greatest name recognition."