Georgia businessman David Perdue's campaign for U.S. Senate suddenly veered off track this week after his portrayal of an opponent's educational background in a negative light. Now, the Republican is dealing with a mutli-pronged backlash that threatens to hurt his standing at a critical juncture.

With less than seven weeks until the Republican primary, Perdue is fighting for one of the top two spots in a crowded field without a clear frontrunner. His remarks about former secretary of state Karen Handel (R) holding only a high school diploma have quickly become the dominant story in the race, distracting from his efforts to run as an outsider focused on the economy. It's brought him criticism from a well-known national conservative figure and it's opened the door for an underdog who has gained little traction so far.

Campaigning for Handel in an Atlanta suburb Thursday, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (R) raised the issue. "She pulled herself up. Nothing was handed to her on a platter, fed to her on a silver spoon," Palin said of Handel, according to the Associated Press. "For those who would criticize and mock that, it really makes me question their judgment."

Palin was referring to a remark Perdue made at the Bibb County GOP headquarters.

"I mean, there’s a high school graduate in this race, okay. I’m sorry, these issues are so much broader, so complex," Perdue said, as he sought to tout his credentials for the Senate. "There’s only one candidate in this race that’s ever lived outside the United States. How can you bring value to a debate about the economy unless you have any understanding about the free enterprise system and what it takes to compete in the global economy?"

Perdue made the remark in January. Video of it surfaced this week and was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Handel's educational background is no secret. It came up in her 2010 run for governor. Her Senate campaign Web site says she "left an abusive home when she was 17, finishing high school and entering the workforce."

Perdue, former CEO of Dollar General and cousin of former governor Sonny Perdue (R), holds a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering and a master's in operations research, according to his campaign.

A spokesman for Perdue said he worked hard to get where he is and has collaborated with "many individuals that chose different paths" to achieving success.

"Now, he wants to go to Washington to help preserve our free market system that provides everyone the opportunity to achieve their dreams, regardless of their starting point. Out of the candidates in this race, he is the most qualified person to address our stagnant economy and outrageous debt, not the career politicians," said Perdue spokesman Derrick Dickey.

Handel, the only Republican woman running, has lagged behind the rest of the field ahead of the May 20 primary. But Perdue's remark has directed fresh attention not only to his bid, but to hers. Democrats looking to stir the GOP pot posted clips of the television coverage the dustup has been getting.

The remark also threatens to alienate Perdue from part of the Georgia population. According to the U.S. Census, less than 30 percent of Georgia adults ages 25 and older hold a bachelor's degree or higher.

Republican strategist Joel McElhannon said Perdue's remark has drawn a lot of attention. But it won't necessarily doom his chances.

"While this is a storm in the race right now, we still have a long way to go until the primary. This race will still be heavily influenced by TV advertising. Perdue is running some of the best ads of the cycle so far and he has the resources to stay on the air," said McElhannon, who is neutral in the primary.

Polling has been all over the map in the campaign. Most observers expect the race to head to a runoff, which would be triggered if no candidate receives a majority of the vote. Also in the Republican race are Reps. Paul Broun, Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey, among others. Some polling has shown Perdue leading, while other data have shown Broun at the head of the pack. But neither is nearing the 50 percent mark.

The likely Democratic nominee is Michelle Nunn, daughter of former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Georgia is one of two realistic pickup opportunities for Democrats, who are defending a fragile Senate majority in the midterm elections.