PEARSON — If ever there was a place to tout President Donald Trump’s endorsement, it’s this quiet town of 2,000 in south Georgia.
Pearson is the seat of Atkinson County, which gave Trump his biggest margin of victory in the 2016 primary, and the dozens who showed for a Brian Kemp rally had the president on their minds.
As he often does, though, the Republican contender for governor stuck to state-specific issues — and attacks on his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams — during his Friday trip to Pearson and every other stop on his rural bus tour.
If the president has occupied an unusual space in this campaign, his role is about to change even more significantly. National media outlets reported Trump is set to stump for Kemp in Macon on Sunday, just two days before the Nov. 6 election.
His visit, along with Vice President Mike Pence’s plans to join the campaign trail with Kemp on Thursday, will inject the White House directly into a race for Georgia governor that has largely steered clear of national issues in recent weeks.
While many of his supporters obviously support Kemp, the secretary of state has largely avoided talking of Trump or his agenda on the campaign trail. Instead, he’s more likely to bring up Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue — the last two Republican governors — as he talks of extending their legacy.
Abrams, who once launched a website devoted to resisting Trump’s policies, has treated the president in a similar fashion. At a string of her own recent campaign stops, she didn’t mention Trump and stuck to policies she’s highlighted since entering the race, such as expanding Medicaid.
She also could counter with her own presidential firepower. Barack Obama endorsed her campaign earlier this year, and he could include Georgia on a string of stops he’s planned before the election.
For Kemp, the approach to Trump marks a stark contrast from earlier in the campaign, when he directly tied himself to Trump and even unveiled a “Georgia First” mantra inspired by the president’s slogan. And Trump’s endorsement of Kemp days before the July GOP runoff helped to turbocharge his victory over Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
In an interview, Kemp said there was no deep strategic motivation behind the shift.
“I’m trying to stay on the Georgia message. People know both candidates. They do not know how extreme Stacey Abrams is. They don’t know about her agenda,” he said. “It’s clear I have the president’s support — it’s not strategic.”
Abrams has taken a similar approach. She’s condemned Trump’s selection of Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court, but otherwise, she has mostly steered clear of federal debates even as a string of potential 2020 candidates have campaigned with her.
Georgia Democrats are wary of turning the race into a referendum on Trump — and possibly further energizing Republicans — in a state he carried by 5 percentage points. Still, some of her backers see the race as a chance to reject Trump.
Amy Spray felt so alienated by both Trump and Hillary Clinton that she skipped the vote and went on a long hike instead. She woke up the next day shocked by the results — and determined to get engaged in this election. She’s enthusiastically backing Abrams.
“I was very naive,” said Spray, a reflexologist in Toccoa. “And I won’t make that mistake again.”
Even as Abrams’ campaign tries to motivate “unlikely” left-leaning voters such as Spray who usually skip midterm elections, Kemp has stepped up his pursuit of Trump voters to try to offset her gains.
That description fits Phil Lyles, a Pearson resident who points out he lives behind a towering pro-Trump sign down the street.
“People realize his values are with Trump — he doesn’t need to say it,” Lyles said. “He’s a lot like Trump. And his focus is where Trump’s focus is: jobs.”