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Vice President Pence tries to shore up Georgia GOP candidate

MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence is trying to shore up a Georgia congressional candidate in the final days of a surprisingly competitive special election in Atlanta's usually Republican suburbs.

Pence will appear with Karen Handel at a fundraiser luncheon Friday following a morning speech at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

Handel faces Democrat Jon Ossoff on June 20 for the seat opened when former Rep. Tom Price resigned to serve as President Donald Trump's health secretary.

The vice president's visit comes a day after former FBI chief James Comey testified on Capitol Hill that he believes Trump fired him to interfere with his investigation of Russia's ties to the Trump campaign.

Comey also accused the White House of telling "lies, plain and simple" about the reasons for his firing.

Pence hasn't commented publicly since Comey's testimony, and he didn't mention Comey at Dobbins during a 15-minute appearance as he thanked reservists and other military personnel for their service and promised "the largest increase in military spending since the days of Ronald Reagan."

Earlier this week, Pence canceled a previously scheduled appearance on PBS' "NewsHour." The vice president's office said the cancellation was only because he was running late during a trip to Houston and would reschedule.

Nonetheless, the administration's cycle of controversy has repeatedly forced Pence into finding ways to defend the president.

The vice president's appearance with Handel is a preview of his role in the 2018 midterm elections, when he may rise to Republicans' top surrogate nationally given Trump's sagging approval ratings.

The outcome in Georgia's 6th Congressional District will be the latest measure of how Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress are playing with voters outside Washington. Republicans already have won special House races this spring in Montana and Kansas. Democrats have from the outset insisted that Georgia was their best opportunity for an upset.

The seat has been in Republican hands since 1979, but Trump barely won here in November and fell shy of a majority among an electorate that had given previous GOP nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain more than 60 percent of the vote.

Handel generally echoes the administration's policy positions, but she also rarely brings up Trump unless she's asked. She appeared alongside Trump at a fundraiser earlier this spring, days after securing a runoff spot with Ossoff.

Ossoff, meanwhile, is setting fundraising records after becoming a face of the anti-Trump movement nationally.

His latest fundraising haul pushes him to $23 million for the entire campaign, a staggering amount for any House candidate and even more eye-popping for a 30-year-old upstart making his first bid for public office. Handel has raised less than a fifth of Ossoff's total, though both national parties and aligned political action committees have funneled plenty of money into the district on behalf of both candidates.

Handel's single biggest backer is a Republican Super PAC with ties to House Speaker Paul Ryan. The Congressional Leadership Fund has committed about $7 million to the race, most of it for television ads, but a significant amount for field workers based in the district.

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Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .

| Jun. 9, 2017 12:11 PM EDT

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