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Stacey Abrams is threading the needle in her approach to President Biden as she seeks the Democratic nomination for Georgia governor in 2022.
Abrams stirred speculation this week over whether she is seeking to distance herself from the president by skipping a major speech on voting rights - her signature political issue - in her hometown of Atlanta.
While both Abrams's campaign and the White House chalked up her absence to a scheduling conflict, that hasn't tamped down questions about her campaign strategy and just how closely she should tie herself to Biden, especially in an election that increasingly appears to be a referendum on Democratic control of Washington.
"There's a risk of reading too far into it, but any candidate has to be aware that they're going to be judged, at least a little bit, by what the president is doing - by the job he's doing," one Georgia Democrat said. "I think it's more that Stacey is running her own campaign and setting her own priorities."
To be sure, Abrams has closely aligned herself with Biden. She openly jockeyed to be his running mate during the 2020 presidential election and campaigned on his behalf throughout the race. And while she didn't attend his speech on Tuesday, she welcomed him to Georgia in a tweet ahead of his visit and later praised Biden's "steadfast advocacy for passage" of federal voting rights legislation.
Both Abrams and Biden have pushed back aggressively on any conjecture that their relationship is fraying. Biden told reporters this week that he and Abrams "have a great relationship" and simply "got our scheduling mixed up."
Seth Bringman, a spokesperson for Abrams's campaign, slammed "false" narratives about her absence from Biden's speech, including the notion that she skipped the event because she was denied a speaking slot.
"It's a disservice to voters across the country and a waste of time and energy amid the fight of our lives for the freedom to vote that unnamed aides would spread false rumors rather than help build momentum for this once-in-a generation opportunity to lead," Bringman said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Still, her absence from Tuesday's speech came at a particularly trying moment for Biden. His approval rating has continued a months-long slide and now stands near its lowest-ever point, according to the data website FiveThirtyEight.
There are also signs that his standing is diminishing among Black voters, a reliably Democratic constituency that helped propel Biden's 2020 victory in Georgia and one that Abrams will need to carry handily this year if she hopes to win the governor's mansion.
A poll released this week by Democratic firm HIT Strategies found that Biden's net approval among Black voters had dropped to +54 percent in December, down from a net +76 percent in June.
At the same time, a coalition of Georgia voting rights groups with ties to Abrams skipped Biden's speech on Tuesday out of frustration with a lack of progress on federal voting rights legislation. While voting rights advocates later praised Biden's remarks, including his call to change Senate rules to pass such legislation, the boycott underscored the simmering tensions between the White House and the activists who helped elevate both Biden and Abrams.
The group Black Voters Matter Fund, one of the activist organizations that boycotted Biden's address, issued a statement after calling the speech "a step in the right direction."
"With that said, it was just the first step. We still need a plan from the President about the next steps he will take to advance his call for filibuster reform," the group said in a statement.
Some Democrats, however, sought to downplay the tension between the White House and activist camps.
"I think it speaks to the idea that we all have a role to play and the president has his lifting to do but activists have their lifting to do in terms of their priorities and what they think is important," said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist close to people in Abrams's orbit. "I don't think it's one versus the other."
Abrams is a political heavyweight in her own right, having come within 55,000 votes of winning the governor's mansion in 2018. That near-victory catapulted her to national political prominence and made her perhaps the most sought-after Democratic recruit of the 2022 midterm cycle.
But she's also facing a very different national political environment than she did four years ago, when backlash to former President Trump and GOP control of Washington helped propel Democrats to victory up and down the ballot.
Now, the tables are turned, with Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House. Republicans are also eager to seize on any divisions - real or perceived - between Democrats, especially given the contentious ongoing GOP primary fight between Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and former Sen. David Perdue (Ga.).
"She's going to be playing defense," said Jay Williams, a Georgia-based Republican strategist. "Last time she was able to run against Trump and Republicans. Well, she doesn't have any of those advantages right now."
Williams said that, unlike in 2018, when Abrams surprised Republicans with her close match-up with Kemp, the GOP is well aware of her potential, giving them more time to prepare for an offensive against her this year.
"Now we're aware of how powerful she is and what a risk she could be," he said. "Assuming we can get out of this primary somewhat unscathed, it'll make it tougher for her."
For Abrams, the state-level campaign she is running could insulate her from the negotiations on voter rights in Washington, Seawright said.
"She's running for the office of governor in the state of Georgia," Seawright said. "She's not running to really raise and heighten awareness around issues that are dealt with at the federal level."
"I read much into the idea that we all want the same thing in the end, and that is making certain that the right to vote is secure, protected, and in some cases expanded," Seawright added.
Williams, however, said that it would be almost impossible for Abrams to escape the broader challenges facing her party in 2022.
"The reality is I think this election is a double-edged sword for Stacey Abrams trying to be this nationalized figure," he said. "Well, now her race is going to be nationalized. She's put herself on the national stage, and that's her own doing. She wanted to be in the spotlight, and so it's going to be that way."