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Obama vs. Trump: A national proxy fight engulfs Georgia governor’s race

The race for Georgia governor always seemed destined to boil down to this: a national proxy fight in the final week of the campaign featuring the biggest names from both parties.

Former President Barack Obama will campaign with Stacey Abrams on Friday evening at Morehouse College, adding his name to the lengthy list of high-powered Democrats backing her bid to become the nation’s first black female governor.

It comes on the heels of a double-whammy from Republicans: Vice President Mike Pence is appearing with Brian Kemp at a trio of stops on Thursday, and President Donald Trump is set to arrive Sunday to rally with the Republican in Macon.

While both candidates were resistant to making the race for governor about national politicians loathed by their opponent’s base, that’s all over now. Each is crisscrossing the state with one goal in mind: motivating his or her core supporters rather than chasing the few remaining undecided voters.

“This is a base turnout election,” Kemp said of Trump’s pending visit. “And he’s definitely someone the base is excited about, including me.”

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Abrams has courted a string of influential Democrats over the past year, and she’s been rewarded with a spate of recent visits from potential candidates for president. But Obama’s appearance will be bring the party’s most prominent figure together with one of its rising stars.

“This is a democracy, and every group is allowed to have their standard-bearers,” she said. “I’m excited that my standard-bearers reflect the diversity and the values of our nation, believing that education belongs to everyone, that we should all have good-paying jobs, that health care is a right and not a privilege.”

A strategy shift

Despite the national attention on the race, Abrams and Kemp have focused their campaigns largely on state-based issues. She’s pledged to expand Medicaid, boost school funding and push for new criminal justice initiatives; he’s vowed to give teachers pay raises, cut taxes and implement a spending cap.

Even so, national forces have long helped shape the race. Kemp directly tied himself to Trump when he entered the race with a “Georgia First” mantra and won the president’s endorsement in July. Abrams has long been a darling of the national party, earning support from Obama and just about every other well-known party figure.

Both have assiduously courted these big names even if it risks energizing their supporters. Trump’s approval ratings in Georgia are on the uptick but still hover below the 50 percent threshold in recent polls. And Obama is vilified among Republicans in Georgia, which he lost in 2008 and 2012.

Obama’s impending arrival also reflects a deeper shift among state Democrats. While Republican leaders have rallied with national GOP figures for the past 15 years, their counterparts have long shied away from doing the same.

The party’s past two gubernatorial contenders — Roy Barnes and Jason Carter — both steered clear of Obama when he visited Georgia weeks before elections. So did Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2014.

Not so Abrams, who has hosted a string of other Democrats — including California U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey — loathed by Republicans. It’s part of her strategy to motivate left-leaning voters who typically skip midterms.

“I’m excited to have him here because it signals how important this race is not only to Georgia but to the rest of the country,” she said.

Abrams’ supporters said it could give them an added incentive to head help her out. Lisa B. Davis was pondering whether to drive with friends from Warrenton to Atlanta to see Obama in person.

“He doesn’t shoot crooked; he shoots straight,” she said. “You know what he says. And what he says is true.”

‘Obama-Abrams’ or ‘Trump-Kemp’?

Republicans have long worried the level of enthusiasm among conservatives hasn’t caught up to their rivals.

Polling suggested that started to change with the fraught confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Republicans hope the one-two punch of Trump and Obama will further energize them.

Some state GOP figures cheered the news of Obama’s plans, which emerged during a Kemp campaign visit in Madison.

“The question is: Does Georgia want an Obama-Abrams stagnating economy or a Trump-Kemp surging economy with jobs and prosperity?” said John Watson, the Georgia GOP chairman. “That’s what this whole campaign is about.”

He was echoed by Carson Frost, a college student at Kemp’s event who predicted Obama would further polarize the race in his native Morgan County, where the Democrat netted less than one-third of the vote in 2012.

“It doesn’t worry me at all,” he said. “He won’t have much influence in this race — especially around these parts. We’re conservative, and it doesn’t matter who comes in.”

OUR REPORTING

It’s a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Recent AJC stories have examined Kemp’s finances and Abrams’ position while in the state Legislature as a leading collector of per diem. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.

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