Two of Coastal Georgia’s Republican heavyweights appeared together to rally the party faithful over the steam tables of scrambled eggs and sausage patties Saturday morning at Carey Hilliard’s: Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter and former Sen. David Perdue, Donald Trump’s handpicked challenger to Gov. Brian Kemp in this fall’s gubernatorial race.

The gathering, more than 10 weeks before the Republican primary election on May 24, suggests that Perdue is trying to boost his flagging ratings. A Fox News poll released last week showed Perdue trailing Kemp by 11 points in the race for the GOP nomination for governor. 

The campaign event, sponsored by the Chatham County Republican Party, also shows the tricky path facing Republican candidates who haven’t received Trump’s endorsement as they navigate the party’s divided slate. 

Carter is walking a tightrope between the warring GOP gubernatorial candidates. But Saturday, he sat on the dais while the audience of some 90 people watched a 30-second video clip of Trump endorsing Perdue, followed by the former senator himself taking swipes at the sitting governor.

In earlier remarks, Coastal Georgia’s indefatigable congressman was in high spirits, entertaining the crowd of voters with a couple of jokes. He declared himself the second happiest Carter in Georgia thanks to Joe Biden who, he said, has taken over from Jimmy Carter the title of worst president in U.S. history. He also mocked Vice President Kamala Harris for her laughter.

But his presence, along with his comments about Ukraine and runaway spending, weren’t all lighthearted. Carter’s one among many local Republican office holders who hope that the gap in opinion polls between Kemp and Perdue remains wide right up until primary day. If the gap narrows, he may come under pressure to endorse one of the candidates publicly — an uncomfortable position for the politically agile congressman and Trump loyalist. 

When Carter spared a few words of praise for Kemp, saying “We’ve got two great candidates running” for governor, his mixed message fell flat. Shortly after Carter sat down, Perdue’s team played the video of Trump denigrating Kemp.

“The Democrats walked all over Brian Kemp,” Trump said. “Brian Kemp let us down. We can’t let it happen again.”

Some other key takeaways:

Perdue, the Uniter? Perdue insisted that his challenge to Kemp isn’t the cause of the deep divisions in Georgia’s Republican ranks. Rather, he said, it was Kemp’s failure to get to the bottom of alleged voting irregularities in the 2020 election that denied Trump reelection.

Reviving the Big Tent? Both Perdue and Carter told the crowd that they would support whoever wins the May 24 primary. However, neither man offered details about how to square the circle between Trump’s and Perdue’s the main talking point — alleged election irregularities — and support for Kemp, the man who refused to cave into Trump’s fabrications of a stolen election in Georgia. 

Abrams as common enemy: The person to unify the Georgia Republican Party may not be a Republican, at all. Both Perdue and Carter described how, in their view, a victory for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams would usher in a political apocalypse, or as Perdue put it: a “woke takeover of Georgia.” That’s a talking point all Georgia Republicans will likely hammer on through the fall.

The way Perdue and Carter worked the room of voters made it difficult to read their own personal relationship, despite Perdue’s reference to his longstanding friendship with the politician from Pooler.

As lines of people helped themselves to a steam-table breakfast in the banquet hall of Carey Hilliard’s, each candidate circulated separately among the tables.

The attendees reserved their biggest cheers for Perdue’s call for election security and demand that parents have more control over public education. There were even louder cheers when he reminded the audience that he had urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger to resign over the 2020 vote count and when he warned of what would befall the state if Democrat candidate Stacey Abrams was elected governor.

Expressions of loyalty to Trump were abundant. Outside, parked next to the restaurant, was an SUV painted to mimic the blue, gold and white paint job on Air Force One. The presidential seal and the name “Trump” were affixed to the driver side door. The vehicle bore a customized Georgia license plate (“DPLRBLE”) and a profusion of stickers on the hatchback and bumper, including “Trump 2024,” “Donald Trump/Best President Ever” and “Beginning of a Nightmare/January 20, 2021.”  

When Perdue was finished speaking, Carter followed him out of Carey Hilliard’s. Neither man rode off in the customized car.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...

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