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Polls Show A Close Race Between Sen. David Perdue And Jon Ossoff For Senate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After Georgia Sen. David Perdue, a Republican, appeared to intentionally mispronounce Sen. Kamala Harris' name last week, his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, jumped. He used the moment to raise money for his campaign. Perdue and Ossoff are in a tight race that is already the most expensive statewide election in Georgia history. And Perdue's close alliance with President Trump has become a central focus. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Emma Hurt reports.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: At a rally for President Donald Trump at an airport in Macon, Ga., last week, it was David Perdue who ended up making headlines when he talked about some of his Democratic Senate colleagues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID PERDUE: And Barney (ph) and Elizabeth and Kamala or Kamala or Kamala or Kamalamalamala (ph). I don't know. Whatever.

HURT: When Perdue first ran for Senate as a political outsider in 2014, Donald Trump wasn't a topic of conversation. This time around, Perdue is campaigning as one of the senators closest to the president. Trump mentions Perdue every time he's in Georgia, including hours later at that Macon event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: David Perdue is a fantastic guy who may be here someplace.

HURT: And while Perdue's spokeswoman said he simply mispronounced Harris's name, his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, has been tying it back to Perdue's White House connections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JON OSSOFF: Well, this is what President Trump has unleashed. Sen. Perdue imitates the president and stoops to mocking people for how their names are pronounced. And I think why this has struck such a chord is that this is what people find so offensive about President Donald Trump's leadership.

HURT: Ossoff's campaign says it raised nearly $2 million from 60,000 donors in the days after the rally.

STEFAN TURKHEIMER: All of the Democratic energy is anti-Trump energy.

HURT: Stefan Turkheimer is a Democratic strategist from Georgia. He says Perdue has the same problem Trump does in this election.

TURKHEIMER: Perdue in 2014 ran against the establishment. He said, all these things you don't like about government, I don't like them, too. But now he's actually part of it.

HURT: He says Perdue has been identified as a, quote, "vulnerable" Trump acolyte, which accounts for all the money pouring into the state to defeat and defend him. In an interview, Perdue says he thinks the results of his high-profile alliance are what Georgia voters pay attention to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PERDUE: It's not about being close to Trump or not. I've had influence in this administration, which is what I wanted.

HURT: For example, with the USMCA trade agreement and the U.S.-China trade relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PERDUE: There are some things we agree on. There's some things we disagree on. He and I disagree. You know, we do it in private.

HURT: Heath Garrett is a Georgia Republican strategist. He says navigating his ties to the president is Perdue's key challenge.

HEATH GARRETT: As in Georgia, Sen. Perdue has this very fine line to walk.

HURT: He has to run a dual-track race in an authentic way, Garrett says, talking to the diverse Atlanta suburbs, where some aren't Trump fans, and to predominantly white conservatives in rural Georgia, where the president's approval ratings are through the roof.

GARRETT: Now, the outside money is doing a lot just to try to tie him back to Donald Trump in the suburbs as well. But yeah, I think his campaign and his groups are doing a pretty good job of letting him bob and weave, distinguish himself - that he is his own person.

HURT: Perdue's own campaign ads hardly mention the president, and he earned more votes than Trump in Georgia's June primary. Still, statewide polls are close, both for Perdue and Trump, which has been a long time coming in Georgia, says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Whereas 15, 20 years ago, Republicans could expect to win statewide contests by double-digit margins, it's a matter of when, not if, at this point, a Democrat's actually going to be able to pull off a narrow victory.

HURT: Almost no polls show Perdue or Ossoff winning more than 50% of the vote. And in Georgia, if no candidate wins the majority, the top two face off again in a January runoff.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHROMEO SONG, "OPENING UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.