What we learned from Biden and Trump’s Georgia rallies

President Joe Biden and Donald Trump at their campaign stops in Georgia on March 9, 2024.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

President Joe Biden and Donald Trump at their campaign stops in Georgia on March 9, 2024.

ROME – President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump used Georgia as a backdrop to dive into what’s certain to be an ugly, bruising general election rematch as they traded barbs during simultaneous events in Atlanta and Rome.

The settings of the rallies were no mistake, as Biden played to the Democratic base at the massive Pullman Yards complex in deep-blue Atlanta while Trump appealed to thousands of MAGA loyalists in the heart of U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district.

The two events Saturday capped a momentous week in the White House race that cemented a sequel to the 2020 matchup that ended with Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia — and an ongoing court case in Fulton County over Trump’s efforts to overturn his defeat.

Here’s what we learned from the split-screen events:

Georgia will stay front-and-center on the road to November

Until Saturday, Trump hadn’t visited Georgia since he surrendered to authorities at the Fulton County Jail on racketeering charges in August. Biden only trekked to the state for two events last year. That’s about to change.

The two rivals and their campaigns see Georgia as one of the few competitive states on the roadmap to November after its surprise flip in 2020. Biden was the first Democrat to win the state since 1992, and another victory in Georgia would complicate Trump’s comeback bid.

Trump said as much to supporters in Rome, where he told Republicans that capturing the 16 electoral votes is imperative: “If we win Georgia, we win the election.”

Democrats played up Georgia’s pivotal role, too.

“Once again, Georgia will decide the fate of our republic,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff. “The stakes could not be higher.”

Biden’s campaign finds a new gear

During his State of the Union address, Biden referred to his “predecessor” 13 times — but never said Trump’s name. He showed no such restraint in Atlanta, where he seemed to feed off the lively crowd of hundreds that filled the entertainment venue.

During a roughly 20-minute speech, he directly contrasted his record with Trump’s, slammed Republicans for pursuing abortion restrictions and the end of the Affordable Care Act, and noted that he hosted far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Friday.

“Donald Trump has a different constituency,” Biden said. “Here’s a guy who’s kicking off his general election campaign on the road up with Marjorie Taylor Greene. It can tell you a lot about a person who he keeps company with.”

He refrained, however, from mentioning the election interference case pending against Trump about five miles down the road at the Fulton County Courthouse, nor did he address the other three criminal cases.

Unlike Trump, who never stopped campaigning after 2020, some Democrats have been waiting and wondering when Biden’s campaign would ratchet up. Activists said they had their answer this week.

As Biden arrived in Atlanta after a fiery State of the Union address, the campaign announced a new battleground ad blitz targeting Georgia and other key states. And a trio of PACs representing voters of color promised to spend $30 million to back his campaign.

“I think the timing is as close to perfect as you can get,” said Griffin Lotson, the mayor pro-Tem of Darien and a Biden supporter.

Laken Riley’s killing has become a core part of Trump’s campaign message

Trump spoke for nearly two hours, leveling a blizzard of attacks. He labeled the journalists arrayed in the Forum River Center “criminals” and slurred his words to mock Biden’s struggles with stuttering since he was a child.

He repeated falsehoods about widespread fraud in Georgia’s 2020 election, and repeated claims that the author E. Jean Carroll made “false accusations” against him despite a string of court judgments against him. He repeated well-worn attacks against Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is leading the case against him in Georgia.

But some of his most cutting remarks involved the slaying of Laken Riley, the nursing student whose Feb. 22 death has highlighted sharp political divisions over immigration. A Venezuelan native who entered the country illegally is charged with murder in her death.

Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump speaks about slain nursing student Laken Riley during a rally at Forum River Center in Rome on Saturday, March 9, 2024, as supporters hold up signs with her photo. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

As supporters filed into a riverside arena that often hosts rodeo events and country music concerts, Trump’s campaign handed out placards with Riley’s face alongside three all-caps words: “SAY HER NAME.”

Trump met with Riley’s friends and parents before the rally and invoked her killing as he renewed vows to seal the U.S. border and launch the nation’s largest-ever deportation of migrants in the country illegally.

“They talk about the beautiful dream of migrants. It sounds so nice — like in a fairy tale book,” he said of Democrats. “But some of these people are monsters.”

Democrats are also leaning into the debate. The party put up billboards across Greene’s district attacking Trump’s opposition to a bipartisan border security deal. And Biden said he still hopes a compromise immigration measure can pass.

“Instead of celebrating the contributions of immigrants to our country, our economy and our communities, Donald Trump calls them vermin, poison in the blood of America,” he said. “Nobody should ever doubt where my heart is.”

There’s a new class of Georgia MAGA loyalists who could gain from Trump’s win

The speaking lineup for Trump’s event was a roster of Georgian politicians who stand to benefit the most if he wins. And most of the Republicans on his list of favorites are part of a new generation of Georgia GOP figures.

First-term Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Collins got several shout-outs from the former president. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper, both potential contenders for higher office in 2026, gave speeches highlighting their ties to Trump.

Georgia Lt. Gov. Burt Jones speaks at a rally for Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump at Forum River Center in Rome on Saturday, March 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Brian Jack, a former Trump aide who just announced his bid for a U.S. House seat, made his campaign debut with a speech alongside the former president. And Greene, who basked in applause from the hometown crowd, is already jockeying for a potential Cabinet spot.

The event also suggested several old-guard Trump devotees could return to the political scene. Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue said he would spend the year making “damn sure” Trump is reelected, while former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins gave the crowd a pep talk.

Raphael Warnock will play an important role in Biden’s campaign

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock seemed to talk more about his work with Senate Republicans than his support for Biden’s agenda during the 2022 race. Intent on preventing his reelection bid from becoming a referendum on Biden, Warnock kept the president at arm’s length.

That changed shortly after Warnock prevailed over Republican Herschel Walker, and the two embraced each other in January 2023 when the president delivered the Sunday sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Warnock serves as the senior pastor.

Now he’s expected to be a key figure in Biden’s campaign as a rare politician who can energize Black voters and the independents crucial to Warnock’s Senate victories. With a national profile and a deep fundraising base, Warnock can also bring his message far beyond Georgia’s borders.

Warnock told the Politically Georgia podcast last week he expects to step up his campaign efforts for Biden while keeping his focus on the state.

He appeared on CNN and NBC on Sunday to push back on the “craven” GOP attempts to blame Democrats for Riley’s killing and promote Biden’s fiery State of the Union address.

“I said to my colleagues, ‘I don’t know if that was Joe Biden or Joe Louis,’” he said on Meet the Press, referring to the famed heavyweight boxing champion from the 1930s. His advice for Biden: “Soldier on.”

“As someone who has had his name on the ballot in Georgia five times in three years, I know a little bit about what it means to run in Georgia,” he said. “And the road to the White House leads straight through Georgia.”

AJC columnist Patricia Murphy contributed to this report.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., talks to the crowd during  President Joe Biden's rally at Pullman Yard in Atlanta on Saturday, March 9, 2024. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

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Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC