Shutdown a Trump 'stunt,' says Democrat Abrams in reply to annual speech

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Stacey Abrams, who nearly became both the first African-American and first woman governor of Georgia, landed a few jabs against President Donald Trump after his State of the Union address while calling for an economic boost for working and middle-class Americans.

Delivering the Democratic Party’s response to his State of the Union address, Abrams struck a tone that might influence other Democrats still searching for the right way to challenge Trump in the election in 2020, when he will seek a second term.

“The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people but our values,” Abrams said.

Abrams sought to balance policy prescriptions with measured attacks against the president, something Democratic strategists say presidential hopefuls should emulate.

“So even as I am very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems, I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America,” she said, speaking in Atlanta in front of a group of mostly women.

The 45-year-old lost her gubernatorial bid, in a Southern state that Trump won in 2016, by less than 60,000 votes in November. Since then, she has emerged as a “bona fide leader” among Democrats, said Jaime Harrison, a senior counselor and co-chair of the Democratic National Committee.

“The 2020 folks will be listening to her and looking to what they can adopt to their message from her own.”

Trump offered few policy details in his address, but mentioned an initiative on late-term abortion and reiterated his pledge to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, while touting the strength of the U.S. economy on his watch.

He slammed the ongoing special counsel probe into whether his campaign had links to Russian meddling in the 2016 election and called for more bipartisanship in Washington, an appeal Democrats dismissed as disingenuous.

As many as two dozen Democrats are eager to challenge Trump as their party’s nominee; about 10 have already declared their candidacies.

“Stacey Abrams is the face 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.

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.

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.”

Candice Battiste, a Democratic strategist in Louisiana who works on initiatives to expand minority access to voting, said Abrams sets an example on communication with minority groups. “Stacey Abrams has that undeniable relatability that doesn’t cross the line into ‘pandering,’” she said.

Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Sonya Hepinstall