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Pence to headline Georgia rally for Kemp in new break with Trump

By Greg Bluestein

ATLANTA — Former Vice President Mike Pence will headline a get-out-the-vote rally with Gov. Brian Kemp on the eve of Georgia's May 24 primary, marking a new split with Donald Trump as each maneuver for a possible 2024 White House run.

Pence called Kemp "one of the most successful conservative governors in America" in a statement announcing the May 23 rally to help the incumbent stave off a Trump-backed challenge from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

The event announced Friday underscores a growing proxy fight in Georgia between establishment forces backing Kemp and the Trump loyalists who want to remake the state Republican party in the former president's mold.

Trump has put Kemp at the top of his revenge list, falsely blaming him for his 2020 election defeat. His vendetta has spread beyond the governor, too, as he's built a pro-Trump slate of candidates who are challenging Kemp allies down the ballot.

But many of Trump's fiercest Republican critics have rallied to Kemp. That includes former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who plans to soon stump for Kemp in Georgia, and former President George W. Bush, who recently donated to his campaign.

It's also a fresh example of Pence's attempt to distance himself from Trump after four years as his political sidekick. Pence called his former boss "wrong" for falsely claiming he could overturn the 2020 results and urged Republicans to focus on 2022 rather than fixate on the past.

On Friday, Pence described Kemp as a friend who is "dedicated to faith, family and the people of Georgia."

"He built a safer and stronger Georgia by cutting taxes, empowering parents and investing in teachers, funding law enforcement, and standing strong for the right to life," said Pence.

The former vice president's visit is part of Kemp's take-no-prisoners approach to the primary. The governor's advisers don't want to simply defeat Perdue and avoid an unpredictable June runoff; they want to rout him.

In the final weeks before the May primary, Kemp has signed legislative proposals aimed at energizing conservatives, traveled to Perdue's hometown to ink an income tax cut and booked millions of dollars in TV ads.

And he's expected to announce a new Hyundai Motor Corp. electric vehicle plant next week that would employ 8,500 people in coastal Georgia and involve an estimated $7.5 billion investment. That comes six months after Rivian selected Georgia for its electric vehicle factory.

Perdue's window is narrow. His only credible shot at ousting Kemp is to keep the governor under the 50% mark and force a head-to-head matchup in June.

But even Perdue's supporters acknowledge his chances are dwindling. He trails far behind Kemp in public polls and hasn't raised the money — or dipped deeply into his own wallet — to keep up with the governor's media blitz.

The governor has a close relationship with Pence. Shortly after he received Trump's endorsement in 2018, Pence headlined a rally to boost his runoff bid against Casey Cagle in Macon. He later returned for a trio of stops for Kemp before the November election.

And when Kemp was facing mounting pressure from both Democrats and Trump for ending pandemic restrictions in 2020, Pence joined Kemp for a barbecue lunch in Marietta and called the state's economic reopening an "example to the nation."

As Trump berated Kemp after the 2020 election, Pence abstained from echoing the criticism and maintained close ties with the governor's camp. More recently, longtime Pence confidant Marc Short joined Kemp's campaign as an adviser.

In a statement, Kemp highlighted his long friendship with Pence and credited the vice president for steering conservative policies in the Trump administration.

"The vice president's leadership was instrumental in creating the most prosperous economy in American history, including here in Georgia, and his commitment to building a safer, stronger America represents the highest ideals of our party," Kemp said.

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