Stacey Abrams, who nearly became both the first African-American and first woman to be governor of Georgia, will deliver the Democrats' response to the State of the Union address on Tuesday, test-driving the party's 2020 challenge to President Donald Trump.
After losing a Southern state that Trump won in 2016 by less than 60,000 votes in November, Abrams has emerged as a "bona fide leader" among Democrats, said Jaime Harrison, a senior counsellor and co-chair of the Democratic National Committee. "The 2020 folks will be listening to her and looking to what they can adapt to their message from her own."
Abrams, 45, said she plans to deliver a speech talking about "prosperity and equality" in a country "where everyone in our nation has a voice." In his State of the Union address, Trump is expected to make extensive remarks about his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, while also arguing that he should be reelected in 2020, touting his achievements so far and laying out the future.
As many as two dozen Democrats are eager to challenge him as their party's nominee - about 10 have already declared their candidacies. Abrams, who recently launched an effort to combat voter suppression of minorities, will get the first high-profile stab at taking on Trump in U.S. television's coveted prime time.
"Stacey Abrams is the fact that the Democratic Party would like to project ... That's where the energy in the party lies: youth and diversity," said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist. Since Democrats, especially those running for president, largely agree on policy, finding the right style and tone to fight Trump will be paramount, said Jason Nichols, an African-American studies lecturer at the University of Maryland.
"Abrams is a great example," Nichols said. "She is firm and uncompromising in her beliefs, yet she will never stoop to the level of Trump or fall for his traps," Payne said 2020 candidates should heed how Abrams speaks to liberals in the party's base, but also to voters in conservative states like Georgia. "The biggest lesson that the 2020 hopefuls can take from Stacey Abrams is to contest and vie for every single vote," he said.
Candice Battiste, a Democratic strategist in Louisiana who works on initiatives to expand minority access to voting, said Abrams sets an example. "Stacey Abrams has that undeniable relatability that doesn't cross the line into 'pandering,'" she said.
The State of the Union response handled skillfully, can be a catapult for a political career, like Senator Marco Rubio's memorable one for the Republicans in 2013 and Nikki Haley's in 2016. Haley went on to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The event also comes with risk. A speech that falls flat can hurt, such as Bobby Jindal's in 2009, from which the former Louisiana governor never really recovered.
(With inputs from agencies.)