ATLANTA — As former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel led a training session for fellow Donald Trump supporters, she beckoned the crowd to listen closely, as if sharing a secret with the group of Sandy Springs Republicans assembled in a conference room.
"I know the Democrats are awfully bullish on their chances in November. They think it's in the bag," she said, adding that she sees a very different sort of "energy" throughout the state. "I hear from people all the time" she said, lowering her voice to a whisper, "who say, 'We're quiet Republicans.'"
They're about to get much louder. After watching Georgia Democrats seize a share of the spotlight at their party's national convention, Republicans now get a turn on center stage with their own four-day mostly virtual hoopla that starts Monday.
The stakes couldn't be much higher for state Republicans. Democratic White House hopefuls last carried Georgia in 1992, but Republicans are on the defensive in this cycle as Trump struggles to handle the pandemic and its resulting economic fallout.
Polls show a close race between the president and Democratic nominee Joe Biden in a state that's essential for the Republican's campaign. Without Georgia's 16 Electoral College votes in the red column, Trump's path to victory narrows to a sliver.
And after years of not seriously competing in Georgia in White House races, Democrats are plowing resources into the state. Biden has hired a team of veteran operatives and started to saturate Georgia's airwaves with ads, forcing Trump to fortify his campaign.
"I'm really optimistic about what we can accomplish in Georgia, and all the players and the ecosystem that's investing in the state," said Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "I really think we can do it here in Georgia. We've got tremendous opportunities."
If there's a hint of caution in his voice, it's understandable. Republicans have relied on Georgia as a bulwark of their Southern strategy since Bob Dole carried the state in 1996. The GOP has dominated Georgia elections much of this century and carried every statewide vote since 2008.
Their margins are narrowing, though, stirring concern in the state's highest GOP ranks. Mitt Romney won Georgia by 8 percentage points in 2012. Trump carried the state by 5 points in his last election. Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by less than 1.5 points in the 2018 governor's race.
"There's no question the elections are going to be close," Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer said. But, he added, "I sense enormous enthusiasm for the president. I'm very optimistic about our prospects this November."
'CLIMBING STONE MOUNTAIN'
Shafer and his allies have used the run-up to the Republican National Convention to highlight what party officials believe could be the difference-maker in November: the party's ground game.
Georgia Republicans have held more than 1,800 training sessions and pro-Trump meetings this cycle, and staffers have made roughly 5.2 million separate contacts with Georgia voters — texts, calls and other interactions — promoting the president and down-ballot candidates.
They've also resumed in-person campaigning after a monthslong hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic. Top candidates have crisscrossed the state, holding rallies and other events, and grassroots foot soldiers have fanned out on balmy weekday evenings and sweltering weekends knocking on doors.
That's a contrast with state Democrats, who were forced to shelve extensive plans to expand a ground game built by Abrams and other candidates in 2018 who stressed the importance of in-person interaction. Instead, Democrats have relied heavily on other ways to reach voters and press their message, including frequent virtual meetups and online town halls.
Every shift in strategy could pay dividends. Poll after poll shows Trump and Biden are neck-and-neck in Georgia — and down-ticket races are tight as well. One of the most recent, a Landmark Communications poll, punctuated that dynamic, pegging Trump at 47% and Biden at 44% — within the margin of error.
And it echoed other recent polls by Monmouth University, YouGov and SurveyUSA that show both a too-close-for-comfort race for Republicans and also a tough task for Democrats.
"Georgia politics for Democrats is an awful lot like climbing Stone Mountain. For 45 minutes you can make a lot of progress, but the last stretch is vertical," said Mark Rountree, a Republican operative who is the president of Landmark.
"They've gotten close to Republicans, but it's hard to get that final step," Rountree said. "They still haven't gotten over the edge."
'A MAN'S MAN'
Much is still up in the air about the convention, including which figures from Georgia will be featured. Campaign aides took studious notes about what worked during the Democratic convention — and what didn't — to perfect the GOP's counterpunch and deliver Trump the flashy final word he desires.
One of the potential Georgia speakers is Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones, who earned national attention earlier this year when he endorsed Trump. Jones, a former DeKalb County chief executive, recently reminded an audience there that he had met with the president several times.
"Donald J. Trump is a man's man. He's strong. When he tells you he's going to do something, he's going to do it," Jones said. "And he's a nationalist. He's going to put his country first."
The Georgia GOP has selected six delegates who will represent the state in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the GOP convention was initially set to happen, for the scaled-back formal business portion of the meeting.
Aside from demonstrating unity behind Trump, the president and his backers are racing to define Biden and his newly minted running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, as shills for a resurgent liberal movement who will steer the country away from capitalist ideals and toward a more "radical" ideology.
"I know many people are trying to paint these two as commonsense moderates, but we know better than that," said Kemp, who said Biden is "hiding" his true intentions.
"Here's my prediction: Just like voters rejected Stacey Abrams because she was too extreme, they will also reject Biden and Harris in November," Kemp said.
Democrats scoffed at the idea and laced their convention with repeated pleas for supporters to "plan your vote" and cast ballots early — particularly voters using mail-in ballots, since the U.S. Postal Service has warned Georgia and 45 other states it might not be able to make delivery deadlines.
"All eyes are literally on Georgia. We're not going to let this country down," said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who got a prime speaking slot Thursday. "We're going to get to the finish line in a way there's no doubts" about the victor.
Lisa Crawford, a McDonough Republican, welcomes the Democratic optimism over polls showing a tight race.
"If that's what you're listening to, then you're listening to the wrong thing," said Crawford, one of dozens who attended a rally this week for Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in Buckhead.
"Trump is going to absolutely be fine. And he's going to shift back to everything he was talking about before COVID: the wall, low taxes, bringing business back here and keeping everything on track."