Momentous or moot? Georgia’s prez primary seems to be the latter

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, shown in Atlanta for November’s Democratic presidential debate, could face off in Georgia later this month. Sanders, though, is under pressure to quit the race after Biden scored a string of primary victories and is now considered the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

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Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, shown in Atlanta for November’s Democratic presidential debate, could face off in Georgia later this month. Sanders, though, is under pressure to quit the race after Biden scored a string of primary victories and is now considered the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Georgia may have missed its moment in the spotlight by pushing back the 2020 presidential primaries. Although Bernie Sanders is staying in the race, the suspense of the Democratic contest has all but evaporated before it lands in the state March 24.

There’s still plenty of reason for Democrats to cast ballots in a primary they see as a dry run for November. But Joe Biden’s growing tally of wins, including his Tuesday victory in battleground Michigan, underscores the support he’s captured from African American backers and suburban white voters that makes him the presumptive nominee.

That coalition would come into play in Georgia, where Sanders faces the same headwinds he confronted in other Southern states where he was trounced. Sanders lost the state overwhelmingly in 2016, and Georgia polls show he’s trailing Biden in this year’s contest.

But before arriving in the Peach State, Sanders must go through another round of votes next week in places where Biden is also expected to dominate. All four contests — in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio — are in states that Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Under pressure to quit the race, Sanders held a press conference Wednesday in Vermont to pledge he’ll stay in the contest through Sunday’s one-on-one debate against Biden, where he promised to confront the former vice president on a policy agenda he casts as wishy-washy.

“What are you going to do?” Sanders repeatedly pressed Biden, ticking through a series of issues such as climate change, health care and income inequality where he has more liberal stances than the former vice president.

And his supporters in Georgia have not given up hope. The Sanders campaign announced plans to open an office in southwest Atlanta on Thursday, and his backers highlighted his popularity with younger voters and growing support for his liberal platform.

“Every exit poll shows support for Medicare for All and major policy changes,” said South Fulton Councilman Khalid Kamau, one of Sanders’ top surrogates in the state. “People are choosing the progressive message, even though they didn’t choose this national messenger.”

Biden’s campaign is leaving little to chance.

The former vice president is set to headline the state Democratic Party’s annual gala March 21 before holding a fundraiser in Buckhead. His wife, Jill Biden, is scheduled to arrive in Atlanta on Sunday for another donor event. And he’s reserved a block of airtime for a TV blitz.

‘SEC primary’ no more

The understated election puts the state in an unusual spot. Georgia has for decades held a prime slot in Super Tuesday votes, making it among the first to hold nominating contests for the White House.

That role heightened in 2016, when then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp put Georgia at the center of a collection of states, mostly from the South, that he dubbed the “SEC primary” to try to give the region more clout.

But this year, the date of the Georgia primary was pushed back to March 24 to give elections officials more time to install new voting machines. The delay gave Georgia a shot at being either momentous or moot.

It seems to be more of the latter. Though Biden is still well short of the 1,991 delegates needed to secure the nomination, he is already seen by many as the eventual nominee after strong showings in places such as Washington state significantly narrowed Sanders’ path to the nomination.

Georgia Republicans, too, quickly framed Biden as the nominee-in-waiting. His string of victories on Tuesday brought a litany of attacks from Georgia conservatives on Wednesday — like a broadside from U.S. Sen. David Perdue that Biden’s tax plan was proof of his “socialist agenda.”

Biden’s supporters, new and old, are uniting in a show of force before the vote.

That’s what’s in store on Thursday as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, one of Biden’s first backers in Georgia, is set to campaign at Paschal’s Restaurant with former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, who joined the push for Biden last week.

A wave of other key Georgia Democrats has swelled the ranks of Biden’s supporters in the state, topped by a group of roughly 50 politicians who announced their endorsement early Wednesday.

Among their number include some of the party's leading figures of past and present: former Gov. Roy Barnes, state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell and U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath. Several of them had endorsed one of Biden's former rivals but flipped when it became a head-to-head matchup.

"The Democratic Party is at a critical juncture, and it's important for us to rally behind someone who can win in November and also represent a broad coalition," said state Rep. Matthew Wilson, who previously supported Pete Buttigieg's bid.

“If you compare the two camps — Biden and Bernie — Biden’s camp cuts through more cross sections of who Democrats are supposed to represent.”