Democrat Stacey Abrams, who in November lost one of Georgia’s closest races for governor in decades, will command the national stage Tuesday when she delivers her party’s response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. KENT D. JOHNSON/kdjohnson@ajc.com

Abrams prepares to counterpunch Trump’s State of Union

It’s a golden platform with immense pressure.

Stacey Abrams steps onto a prime-time stage Tuesday that could elevate her lofty national profile and boost her possible challenge to U.S. Sen. David Perdue when she delivers the Democrats’ rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union.

But the former gubernatorial candidate has also accepted an assignment that’s tailor-made for second-guessing. More than a few of the speakers before her have bungled the address, squandering a chance to impress a national audience of millions with a competing vision of leadership.

“Yeah, it’s terrifying,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., whose rebuttal last year was remembered mainly by the distraction caused by his glistening lips.

“I’d like to think it wasn’t an end to my political career,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “but I guess that’s up for you guys to decide.”

Abrams used the same word — “terrified” — to describe her attitude. But it’s also an immense opportunity as she mulls her political future. The Fair Fight Action voting rights group she launched shortly after her defeat has set up a string of watch parties across Georgia and the nation to bring attention to her remarks.

At a tech conference in California, Abrams said she was not feeling pressure because “I might make a mistake, but because so many want the opportunity to rebut what they’ve seen over the past few years.”

“My responsibility is to not only give voice to those who don’t believe they’ve been seen or heard, but to offer remedies,” she said, “and do that all in 10 minutes.”

That sums up the challenge Tuesday for Abrams, who will become the first black woman and first Georgian to deliver the rebuttal. Her selection reflects a changing Democratic coalition shifting from trying to win back Trump supporters and toward expanding its liberal base.

The past two Democrats to give the response were white men who made direct appeals to blue-collar voters who have fled the party. Kennedy gave his last year from a tech school that trains autoworkers, while ex-Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear went to a diner in coal country to make his pitch.

Abrams, meanwhile, staked her campaign on energizing liberal voters, many of them minorities who often skipped elections, with a platform that emphasized new gun restrictions, the expansion of Medicaid and fewer obstacles to voting.

She lost that election to Republican Brian Kemp by slightly more than 1 percentage point, but she emerged as a national Democratic figure with a $42 million campaign and the help of her party’s stars. Her narrow defeat has fueled talk of a likely challenge in 2020 against Perdue, a first-term senator and staunch Trump ally.

Democrats likely need to flip Georgia’s seat to retake the Senate, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has tried to recruit Abrams to run.

Republicans mocked the pick of a candidate who lost her race for governor just three months ago. Republican state Rep. Trey Kelley branded her “Sour Grapes Stacey” and quipped that she’s too busy chasing cameras to empathize with Georgians.

“This just confirms Stacey Abrams cares more about impressing New York and California liberals like Chuck Schumer and (U.S. House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi instead of what’s important to hardworking Georgians,” Kelley said.

Trump had softer words, saying that he respects her and that he hopes “she does a good job.” Still, he added a dig, asserting that Kemp won “fairly easily, fairly easily” with his endorsement. Kemp came within about 16,000 votes of being forced into a runoff in the state’s tightest gubernatorial election in decades.

‘Don’t overthink it’

Trump will benefit from the applause and pageantry that comes with speaking to Washington’s elite, hundreds of lawmakers and dignitaries cheering him on. The House sergeant-at-arms will usher him into the ornate U.S. House chamber, where members of Congress are known to clog the entrance to the aisle seeking a presidential handshake.

Abrams hasn’t disclosed many details about her speech, but she will be writing it herself and plans to deliver it in metro Atlanta. If past is prologue, she will stand in a quiet room before a lone camera. Before she gives what will be the biggest speech of her life, she’ll listen intently to what Trump says and decide whether to make a quick adjustment to her remarks.

Some of her predecessors used the platform as a launching pad to greater political stardom. There’s little doubt it raised the profiles of then-Congressmen Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush before they launched White House bids.

More recently, a trio of GOP women earned positive reviews for their responses to President Barack Obama’s addresses: Washington U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in 2014, Iowa U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst in 2015 and then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in 2016.

McMorris Rodgers’ advice for Abrams was relatively simple. She encouraged Abrams to “be herself and just use the opportunity to present a positive vision.”

McMorris Rodgers admitted to feeling the pressure ahead of her speech. Her moment came the year after Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio launched thousands of internet memes for taking awkward gulps of water in the middle of his remarks.

Paul Ryan, who gave the rebuttal address before becoming U.S. House speaker, had advised McMorris Rodgers to suck on a cough drop during her speech to avoid dry mouth, but she was wary of a potential gaffe. She said the best pointer she received came from then-Speaker John Boehner.

“He said, ‘Don’t overthink it and just be yourself, and in that moment don’t try to be something that you’re not,’” McMorris Rodgers said. “I really appreciated that.”

Rubio’s words of advice to Abrams were a little more succinct.

“Hydration is a very good idea,” he said in a tweet. “Trust me on this.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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