As Biden threatens in Georgia, Trump aims to turn out rural votersThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution — By Greg Bluestein The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Oct. 16-- MACON, Ga.-Racing to squeeze more support from heavily Republican rural areas, President Donald Trump promised a "red wave" would crush Democrats in November and touted his administration's agricultural programs at an outdoor rally that underscored Georgia's tight race for the White House.
Throughout his Friday speech to more than 1,000 supporters packing a Macon airport, Trump said he had no doubt Georgia would remain in the GOP column in November, despite polls showing Joe Biden threatening to become the first Democrat to carry the state since 1992.
The president sprinkled his remarks with stump speech favorites that enlivened the crowd, including criticism of Biden's coronavirus strategy, attacks on the "left-wing corrupt media" and a pledge that he is still "not a politician" despite his four years in the Oval Office.
But he also emphasized a more localized message, highlighting a $3 billion package of aid for victims of Hurricane Michael after it flattened crops and uprooted livelihoods in southwest Georgia in 2018. The relief measure, which stalled for months, started reaching some farmers about a year after the storm after a protracted battle in Congress.
"We gave them a hell of a lot of money," Trump said of the farmers besieged by the monstrous storm, adding: "It made me feel good. They never ask for anything. They just want a level playing field."
It served to remind voters that his visit to Middle Georgia Regional Airport was not aimed at voters in Macon-Bibb County, which Trump lost resoundingly in 2016. It was geared toward the surrounding rural areas where Trump and other Republicans have long tallied giant margins.
As Democrats consolidate support in Atlanta's vote-rich suburbs, Republicans are trying to wring out every vote they can to offset those losses. While Democrat Stacey Abrams dominated the suburbs in 2018, Republican Brian Kemp narrowly won the governorship by capturing about 90% of rural Georgia.
Republicans acknowledge that's not a formula for long-term success in Georgia. The densely populated urban and suburban areas where Democrats now dominate are growing at a faster pace than many stagnant rural areas. But they hope that strategy is enough to hold court this year.
"Folks, we got a battle on our hands here in Georgia. We're going to win, but it's not going to be easy," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, told the audience. "Come to these events, but be in your own neighborhoods. Talk to your people-get out your Rolodex and your computer and call those people."
It was Trump's first visit to Georgia since he was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this month, and the mass gathering conflicted with Kemp's recently extended order restricting crowds of more than 50 people. Even a contract struck between the campaign and the airport acknowledged the violation.
Many in the closely packed audience didn't wear masks, nor did some of the more prominent figures. Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones, who endorsed Trump earlier this year, crowd-surfed through the masses without wearing a face covering shortly before Trump arrived to thunderous applause on Air Force One.
There was other drama before Trump arrived. U.S. Sen. David Perdue mocked the pronunciation of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris' name, drawing criticism from his challenger Jon Ossoff and other Democrats who called it a "racist tactic." Perdue's spokesman insisted he "didn't mean anything" by the mispronunciation.
Kemp, one of the first speakers who addressed the throng on an airport tarmac, channeled Trump as he issued a fiery defense of his coronavirus response and blasted news media coverage of his approach.
"The press was cheering our destruction in many ways. But you know what we did? We stayed strong and remained courageous," the governor told the cheering crowd. "Just like the Good Book says. And because of that, you all in our great state are leading the great American comeback."
The state's coronavirus picture has steadily improved since a summer surge in cases. The seven-day rolling average of cases in Georgia has declined about two-thirds from the July peak, and current hospitalizations also are down by a similar amount.
But the rolling average of cases in Georgia is about double what it was at the end of May, and the number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 is up about 60% compared with the low point in early June.
Like previous visits, Trump's trip to Georgia triggered renewed jockeying between U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, her most formidable Republican challenger in November's special election, over who is a more fervent supporter of the president.
Trump has declined to take sides, saying the turnout spike from the closely contested race should give him an edge over Biden. In an interview Friday with WSB-TV, Trump called both "terrific" but said he won't endorse either until an expected January runoff against a Democrat.
"Tough situation. I like to weigh in, generally speaking," Trump said. "I like to weigh in, but these are both great people, and get out and vote for them, and then I'll be doing something that will be very strong, but it's very tough, it's a tough business when you have two friends of yours who are running."
Georgia Democrats, meanwhile, sense an opportunity to gain inroads in an area often overlooked. While much of the party's focus has centered on the competitive battleground across Atlanta's bedroom communities, the fight to woo rural white voters may pay dividends.
Ahead of his visit, national Democrats sent a plane soaring above Macon with a message reading: "Trump Lied, 215,000 Died." And billboards along roads outside the airport declared "This Administration Failed Us" and warned of a "Trump COVID Superspreader Event."
"Let's say Democrats usually get 20% of the vote in places like where I grew up in Monroe County," said Seth Clark, a Democratic commissioner-elect in Bibb County. "What happens if they get 22% in those places this time? Well, that's the ballgame. If Biden improves marginally, he wins. That's it."
He said a similar dynamic is playing out in other battleground states, forcing Trump to make recent visits to rural areas in Iowa and Florida, which he visited shortly before his Georgia stop.
"Trump's not trying to just shore up rural Georgia. He's trying to shore up rural America," Clark said. "He's bleeding, and if we make inroads in rural Georgia, it's over."
Republicans scoffed at talk that Democrats could step up the competition in the state's agricultural heartland. In an interview, Collins said only Trump could help rehabilitate a rural economy ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
"For the first time, somebody actually cares about farmers," the four-term congressman said. "People want to just see our country normalize, that schools are getting back open safely, businesses getting back open. And the other side, frankly, looks like they're trying to run from it."
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