Biden and Trump trade barbs over Laken Riley death, immigration, during dueling campaign rallies in Georgia

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President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump held dueling campaign events in Georgia on Saturday – and traded barbs over the death of a nursing student and immigration as they turned their focus towards the general election. 

Their campaign rallies, which were the second time Mr. Biden and Trump were in the same state in recent weeks, were underscored by the recent death of Laken Riley, a University of Georgia nursing student who was killed by an alleged undocumented immigrant from Venezuela while jogging on campus. 

Mr. Biden apologized during an interview with MSNBC on Saturday, for using the term “illegal” to describe the man who allegedly killed Riley during his State of the Union address. He said he shouldn’t have used that specific language.

“They’re an undocumented person. And I shouldn’t have used illegal – it’s undocumented,” Mr. Biden said. Biden added further criticism of Mr. Trump calling immigrants “vermin” and saying they are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

Trump seized on the comments from Biden, blaming Riley’s death on Biden’s immigration policies. Trump met with Riley’s parents backstage before his campaign event in Rome, Georgia, a city of about 38,000 in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district. Rep. Greene interrupted Mr. Biden’s State of the Union speech on Thursday, which prompted Biden to say Riley’s name.

“They just told me, prior to what I’m doing right now, that Joe Biden went on television and apologized for calling Laken’s murderer an illegal,” Trump said at his rally in Rome, Ga. “Biden should be apologizing for apologizing to this killer.” 

On immigration, Mr. Biden and allies have gone after Trump for encouraging Congressional Republicans to vote against a bipartisan border bill earlier this year.  

Maryland Governor Wes Moore, a Biden campaign surrogate at his Atlanta rally, said it was “really rich for the former president to talk about the importance of immigration reform, and he’s the reason it died.”

A crucial battleground for both campaigns

The Peach State is a crucial battleground for both campaigns. Mr. Biden won Georgia in 2020 by 12,000 votes – making it the first time that the traditionally red state turned blue in nearly 30 years.  Sixty miles away from Trump’s remarks, Mr. Biden held a rally in downtown Atlanta as his campaign continued a post-State of the Union launch into the general election.  

In his remarks, the president has kept the focus on his contrasts with Trump. 

“Donald Trump has a different constituency. Here’s the guy who’s kicking off his general election campaign in the road up with Marjorie Taylor Greene. It can tell you a lot about a person who he keeps company with,” Biden said in Atlanta, noting Trump had met with autocratic leader Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, late Friday afternoon at Mar-a-Lago.

Rebuilding his winning coalition in 2020 of minority voters, specifically Black voters in Georgia, will be critical for Mr. Biden. The campaign has said they’re investing in media buys for Black and Hispanic-owned media outlets, and the largest political committees representing different minority groups all endorsed Mr. Biden on Saturday.

But while Mr. Biden has made headwinds motivating these groups at the start of this general election period – his current support among Black and Hispanic voters is lower now than it was in 2020, according to a CBS News poll. 

“Black voters show up in inspiring and unbeatable numbers to vote for progressive issues and candidates. Our concern is not so much how will black voters perform, but how will the rest of Georgia perform?” said Keron Blair, an organizer with the New Georgia Project, a voting rights organization founded by Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. 

“At the same time, the concerns and the critiques black communities have levied against the administration cannot and should not be ignored,” he added. 

Trump’s trip to Georgia comes as he seeks to clinch the GOP nomination. The former president is the only major Republican candidate still in the race after former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley dropped out but he has not reached the requisite delegate count. He is within striking distance, and voters in Georgia may deliver Trump the required delegates to officially become the party’s nominee. 

Georgia, along with Hawaii, Mississippi and Washington, are holding its presidential nominating contests on Tuesday, March 12. 

This is Trump’s first time back in Georgia since August when he turned himself in at the Fulton County jail on charges from District Attorney Fani Willis’ case investigating efforts to overturn the 2020 election. In January 2021, Trump allegedly asked Governor Brian Kemp and other Georgia state officials to add 11,780 votes that would overturn Biden’s win in the state. 

Taurean Small contributed reporting.

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