About midway through his speech in Atlanta’s northern exurbs, former Vice President Mike Pence brought up an issue that’s both a point of pride for Gov. Brian Kemp and a reminder of a break with his former boss that could shape the 2024 race.

“Let me be very clear about this: Georgia was not one of the first states to reopen its economy and end the shutdowns,” he said, pausing slightly for effect. “Georgia was the first state in America to open up again.”

As the crowd cheered, Pence’s maneuver wasn’t lost on senior Republicans. Kemp’s decision to lift economic restrictions early in the pandemic wasn’t just criticized by Stacey Abrams and other Democrats. Then-President Donald Trump also excoriated Kemp for the move.

And as Trump weighs a comeback bid, Pence and other high-profile Republicans who might oppose the former president if he runs in 2024 are aligning themselves with Kemp.

They see in Kemp a conservative governor who not only routed a Trump-backed challenger in May but could be on the verge of defeating a GOP nemesis in November. Polls show Kemp with a consistently solid lead over Abrams, though she says they miss many irregular voters.

Pence has a long history with Kemp, and he was one of the first national figures to campaign for the governor amid a brutal 2018 primary. But Pence’s rally for Kemp in May was noteworthy for another reason — it was one of the most visible breaks between the former vice president and Trump, who backed David Perdue’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Kemp.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to reporters after a rally featuring former Vice President Mike Pence in Cumming on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

That primary eve rally capped a spate of visits by mainstream Republicans who had drawn Trump’s wrath. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey stumped for Kemp in suburban Sandy Springs, while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie touted his policies at a brewery in Canton.

This week sees the return of all three to Georgia to give Kemp a final boost against Abrams, starting with Tuesday’s two-stop tour by Pence. The former vice president told supporters outside a Cumming cigar bar that there’s “no better governor in America than Brian Kemp.”

“I can honestly say I was for Brian Kemp before it was cool,” Pence said. “I came in in that primary four years ago. I saw his quality. I sensed his commitment. I sensed his backbone. I knew he would lead Georgia to unprecedented prosperity and security.”

Abrams, meanwhile, welcomed Pence with a reminder that he expanded Medicaid as governor of Indiana — a step that Kemp has long opposed in Georgia as a move he said would be too costly and inflexible in the long run.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff introduces gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at a voting rally for Democrats in Atlanta on Oct. 28, 2022. Former President Barack Obama also attended the rally. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“(Pence) accepted the money. He created 30,000 new, good-paying jobs,” Abrams told supporters at a stop in Marietta. “And they did not lose six hospitals in the last four years.”

‘No question’

Pence’s visit also underscores who hasn’t joined the campaign trail. Throughout the primary, Trump loomed large over the race for Georgia’s top offices. But in the general election campaign, he has played a diminished role.

Kemp reminds reporters he hasn’t “said a bad word” about the former president and touts the “Trump-Pence agenda.” But he’s not eager to cozy up to someone who took drastic steps to defeat him — and even mused that he’d rather see Abrams win this year’s election than Kemp.

The down-ticket GOP incumbents who also beat back Trump-inspired challengers also have steered clear of the former president.

And even U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, a longtime friend and ally of Trump’s, hasn’t focused on his alliance with the former president on the campaign trail. (Walker did, however, confirm he would support a Trump run in 2024.)

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) shakes hands with Republican candidate Herschel Walker prior to the Nexstar Georgia Senate Debate at District Live at Plant Riverside District in Savannah, Ga., on Friday, October 14, 2022.

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

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Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

Trump’s allies initially talked of a mid-October visit to South Georgia to piggyback off the debate between U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Walker. It was to take place amid a spate of Trump rallies in battleground states that includes upcoming stops in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But that idea was scrapped at the urging of key Georgia Republicans who brandished polling data that showed Trump could do more harm than good to the Senate candidate’s campaign.

The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows why they have reason for concern. Some 52% of likely Georgia voters disapprove of the former president, while 42% see him in a favorable light.

Of those who view him negatively, about 15% are Republicans and nearly 80% are independents. A majority of Black Georgians, moderate voters, women and those under the age of 64 give him unfavorable reviews.

Gov. Brian Kemp greets supporters in Cumming at a rally featuring former Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Even as Pence was preparing to speak, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan delivered an address to the Buckhead Club sharpening his vision of a “GOP 2.0″ without Trump at the center. Kemp, too, may have a say in the national narrative if he wins next week.

Asked after Tuesday’s rally whether a Kemp victory could set an example for a post-Trump GOP, Pence sidestepped the question. He said he would first focus on helping boost the governor across the finish line.

“There is no question that Gov. Brian Kemp, by focusing on the values of the people of Georgia, the priorities and policies that will make Georgia more secure and more prosperous, has struck a deep chord with the people of the state,” he said.

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