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Sunday May 9th, 2021 12:41PM

Too soon? Georgia draws next class of White House hopefuls

By The Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) — Move over, Iowa. Step aside, New Hampshire. Georgia would like a few moments of presidential campaign time.

The state has fast become a stage for the cast of possible Republican presidential candidates after President Donald Trump's defeat. Even as votes are still being tallied in this month's election, Georgia's two high-profile Senate contests are drawing top GOP politicians to the state to campaign, network and raise their profiles.

Too soon?

Not for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who arrived in Georgia last week to rally Republicans behind Senate colleagues David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler as they try to quash their respective Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Fellow Florida Sen. Rick Scott followed last Friday. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas senator widely viewed as having presidential ambitions, came to central Georgia on Thursday. Vice President Mike Pence is due in the state Friday.

Meanwhile, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley has sent a flurry of fundraising emails coaxing rank-and-file Republicans to bankroll the Georgia runoff campaigns. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a former presidential candidate, has mentioned the contests in his regular circuit of cable television appearances. Loeffler’s campaign website homepage features a photo of the senator with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

“Georgia gives anyone looking at their own run a chance at some action, where they can show some leadership and their campaign ability,” said Matt Moore, a GOP operative who saw plenty of presidential ambition as leader of the South Carolina Republican Party in 2016.

To be sure, it's not unusual to see national political players going all in on Georgia. Control of the U.S. Senate hangs on the results of the Jan. 5 runoffs. Republicans and Democrats are throwing piles of money and resources at the state. And a hand-tallied audit of ballots cast in the presidential race just wrapped up Thursday night, with state officials confirming President-elect Joe Biden leads Trump by roughly 12,000 votes out of nearly 5 million counted. The Associated Press on Thursday called Biden the winner in the state.

Notably, Trump is the glaring potential 2024 contender who has not yet publicly committed to a Georgia visit. The defeated Republican president has talked about another run — even as he has refused to concede his loss and instead circulated false claims of widespread voter fraud to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the results.

But Trump also won millions more votes than he received four years ago and fueled rural and small-town turnout that helped Republicans pick up House seats, protect several vulnerable GOP senators and maintain control of key state legislatures, including in Georgia.

That popularity makes it politically risky for Republicans with White House ambitions to call out Trump’s falsehoods. And it gives them incentives to align with Trump, even as he works to undermine a smooth transfer of power.

“He showed the Republican base is still his base,” Moore said. “That’s the story of 2020. It’s not just about raising money and making the rounds in the party. These candidates want to show they can connect with voters” the way Trump has.

Rick Tyler, a Trump critic and once a top aide on Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign, said that's easier said than done, especially for any Republicans trying to establish any identity separate from the outgoing president. “Until there is a cure for Trumpism, the 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls will remain as frozen as a COVID vaccine,” Tyler quipped.

Scott, speaking to a packed restaurant in the northern edge of metro Atlanta, drew some of his loudest cheers when he mentioned talking “to the White House” before he arrived in Georgia and reported that “the president ... loves Georgia.”

In suburban Atlanta, Rubio didn’t mention Trump as he addressed hundreds of eager GOP voters, a few of them sporting buttons from Rubio’s 2016 bid but far more of them wearing Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” hats. After reporters asked Rubio about Trump’s baseless assertions of a stolen election, the senator noted that “a substantial percentage” of voters had questions about the vote count. But Rubio still never mentioned Trump.

“I think everyone needs to relax,” Rubio said. “We have an election process in this country.” In December, he said, the Electoral College will choose a president and “that president will be sworn in on Jan. 20.”

At the state fairgrounds Thursday, Cotton also steered clear of Trump, emphasizing Senate control and reminding his audience of the recent boast by Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York: “Now we take Georgia, then we change the world.”

As the crowd jeered at the mention of Schumer, Cotton said: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think your state if up for the taking by Chuck Schumer, is it?”

None of the GOP visitors has declared a plan to run for president. When Rubio campaigned alongside Loeffler in Cobb County, among his strongest counties as a presidential candidate in 2016, he made no nod to his previous White House bid or the possibility of another one.

Scott, meanwhile, insisted he was in Georgia in his capacity as incoming chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, even though Indiana Sen. Todd Young remains the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair and will be making key spending decisions about the contests.

Brian Colas, a political adviser to Cotton, noted that the Arkansas senator campaigned in Georgia before November and was simply reprising his supporting role for two Senate colleague and friends. “The senator remains focused on 2020,” he said.

For Democrats, there’s less future presidential intrigue to blend into the Georgia campaign. With Biden’s election, there’s no scramble yet for a 2024 primary. Biden could seek reelection as an 81-year-old incumbent, but even if he doesn’t, such an announcement wouldn’t come until much nearer the election year — and for now, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would overshadow any other potential party leaders. Beyond Biden and Harris, Democrats' most glittering surrogate already has been president for two terms: Barack Obama.

Asked when Republicans might start becoming more frank about their futures, Moore, the South Carolina operative, was precise: “Jan. 21" — the day after Biden's inauguration.

Until then, or at least until Jan. 5, there's always Georgia.

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