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In one affluent Atlanta suburb, Biden and Trump work to win over wary Georgia voters

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. (AP) — President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will meet for their first general election debate Thursday in Georgia, the battleground that yielded the closest 2020 margin of any state and became the epicenter of Trump’s efforts to overturn Biden’s election.

Now, in their rematch, Georgia will test which man can best assemble a winning coalition despite their respective weaknesses. Each must persuade grumpy voters in places like Fayette County, a suburb south of Atlanta, that they’re less frightening than the alternative.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for the third consecutive time, has been convicted of felony crimes and awaits sentencing and three more criminal trials, including in Atlanta. That legal peril could exacerbate his struggles with moderate Republicans and independents, some of whom abandoned him as he helped dismantle the constitutional right to an abortion and refused to accept defeat in 2020.

Biden, the Democratic incumbent, has presided over an inflationary economy, struggled with a Middle East war that divides Democrats, and failed to resolve immigration problems along the southern U.S. border. He faces potential defections from nonwhite and younger voters.

One of Georgia’s richest counties, Fayette has long housed retirees and Delta Air Lines workers seeking homes near Atlanta’s airport. Now it’s also a bastion of Georgia’s state-subsidizedmovie industry. At the Trillith development, a rapidly growing high-end town and movie studio, workers can be overheard discussing the latest Captain America movie being filmed there.

Like other Atlanta suburbs, the 120,000-resident county has been angling left. Democrats haven’t yet deposed Fayette’s Republican majority, but they got close in December 2022, when Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock won 49.5% of Fayette’s votes in defeating Republican Herschel Walker.

“We do believe that the pathway to the presidency comes right through Fayette County this year,” said Joe Clark, chair of the Fayette County Democratic Party and a Fayetteville City Council member.

The Trump campaign on June 13 opened its first Georgia campaign office in Fayetteville.

“They want to try to flip our county,” warned Brian Jack, a former Trump aide who recently clinched the GOP nomination for a Republican-leaning congressional seat.

Statewide, Republicans say Georgia still tilts toward them. Yes, Democrats won statewide four times in Georgia, starting with Biden in 2020, continuing as Jon Ossoff and Warnock swept to twin victories in a 2021 runoff that clinched Democratic control of the U.S. Senate, and culminating in Warnock’s reelection in 2022. But GOP Gov. Brian Kemp won a second term as governor in 2022 over Democrat Stacy Abrams by a comfortable margin, sweeping down-ballot offices along the way.

Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ top strategist, said Democrats were slow to engage in Georgia in 2020. Both sides have been spending heavily this year.

“This is the first time since the 1990s that Georgia has been a top-tier battleground state for the presidential on both sides of the aisle, from the beginning of both campaigns,” Groh-Wargo said.

Both sides have work to do. Many voters, Democrats and Republicans, say they’re dispirited by the Trump-Biden rematch. Some say they’re not sure that they will even vote.

Robert Kennedy Jr.’s independent bid is another wildcard. Kennedy hasn’t been certified for the ballot, but he could make Georgia even harder to predict.

Some formerly solid Republicans have taken to splitting their tickets. Trump and Walker showed weakness in metro Atlanta even as Kemp remained strong.

Quentin Fulks, a southwest Georgia native who is Biden’s principal deputy campaign manager and steered Warnock’s 2022 campaign, estimates that Warnock won 9% of Republican voters.

“Candidate quality matters,” said Republican strategist Brian Robinson. Trump ignited “a real realignment” that drew working-class voters without college degrees toward Republicans, Robinson said, but has pushed away college-educated voters.

Some of those voters “still want to vote for Republicans or are willing to,” but only in the right circumstances. In Georgia’s Republican presidential primary in March, about 78,000 voters — most in metro Atlanta — voted for Nikki Haley over Trump even after Haley suspended her campaign. Haley’s total was more than six times Biden’s 2020 Georgia victory margin.

Fayette ranks seventh among Georgia’s 159 counties in voters who backed Kemp but not Walker. Haley won 13.2% statewide, but nearly 19% in Fayette County.

Rhonda Quillian, shopping at a Peachtree City farmer’s market, backed Haley. She says neither Biden nor Trump feel like an option for her. She’s considering not voting at all.

Quillian said she liked Trump’s policies after she voted for him in 2016, but soured on him, especially after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

“If he wasn’t such an egomaniac, I would vote for him in a skinny minute because of the policies,” Quillian said. “But he’s a little scary when he starts talking and he’s trying to overthrow the election and being anti-Constitution and, you know, ‘I’m the law.’ I’m sorry, no, this is a democratic republic.”

For Biden, the challenge is replicating the coalition that delivered his razor-thin margin. Responding to warnings from Georgia Democrats that he must engage with Black voters, the president has visited routinely, and Vice President Kamala Harris has made five trips to Georgia this year.

“We have to talk to Black voters in both urban and rural Georgia,” Fulks said. “That is where I start.”

Trump has boasted that he will make inroads among Black voters. Robinson acknowledged it’s unlikely Trump would get even a fifth of Black voters, but said he wouldn’t necessarily have to: Black voters typically account for about 30% of Georgia ballots. If some Black voters stay home, or Biden’s share drops even a little, Trump could benefit.

Deidra Ellington, a counselor who lives in Fayetteville, calls the choice between Biden and Trump “slim pickings.” Ellington, who is Black, says she no longer feels allegiance to either party.

“It’s almost to a point where you’re not even able to live paycheck to paycheck,” Ellington said. “You get the first paycheck, and then it’s borrowing in between before the next paycheck.”

In an April poll by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, more Democrats said Biden had hurt than helped on the cost of living and immigration. The Biden campaign has been trying to salve that pain.

“The president deeply understands what Americans are going through, and also the fact that there is more work to do,” Fulks said.

Republicans, meanwhile, aim to turn the election into a referendum on Biden’s handling of the economy.

“My pitch is, are you happy with $4 a gallon gas and $6 for a jar of mayonnaise? If you’re not, it was not like that when Trump was in office,” said Suzanne Brown, a Peachtree City Council member who has canvassed for Republicans this spring.

Democrats say they’re out-organizing Trump, aiming to turn out marginal Democrats and persuade independents and moderate Republicans to back Biden. The campaign has a dozen offices and 75 staffers statewide, including some in Fayetteville.

“I think that Trump is underestimating the power of organizing,” Fulks said.

Not so, says Republican National Committee spokesperson Henry Scavone. He says the Trump campaign has gone from zero offices to a dozen since June 13.

Republicans, aware voters are in a sour mood, are optimistic but not cocky about places like Fayette County.

“If the election were held today, Donald Trump would almost certainly win here,” Robinson said. “But the election isn’t being held today.”

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Barrow reported from Atlanta.

By JEFF AMY and BILL BARROW
Associated Press

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