Amid the bombs, how Pa. took center stage at the first presidential debate | Wednesday Morning Coffee

September 30, 2020 7:22 am

Pennsylvania Second Lady Gisele Fetterman speaks during a pre-debate virtual rally on Tuesday, 9/29/20 (Screen Capture)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s ground troops in a critical 2020 battleground state were rallying the troops before the first verbal jabs were even traded onstage during Tuesday’s debate at the Health and Education Campus at Case-Western Reserve University.

“It will take all of us doing all we can,” Pennsylvania Second Lady Gisele Fetterman said in a virtual rally ahead of the 90-minute slugging match. “Compassion is on the ballot. But so is competency. It will take every connection we make … It will take all of us and it’s not going to be easy. If we do all the things, we can do this.”

It’s more than just a soundbite.

President Donald Trump, more astute readers will recall, won Pennsylvania by barely a percentage point in 2016. That’s a little more than 44,000 votes.

And that means that, as tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians gear up to vote by mail in the coming weeks, the clarity of the message that got delivered on stage in Cleveland was critical to Democrats. And at ground level, the rah-rah speeches that Fetterman and other Democratic activists delivered in the pre-show will help to motivate base voters to do their thing.

A scene from Tuesday night’s debate in Cleveland, Ohio (Screen Capture)

But they could not have been prepared — none of us were prepared — for the 90-minute conflagration that unfolded before us on Tuesday night. Even if we knew it was going to be brutal — and we did — this one smashed through even those expectations.

Calling it a car crash would do a disservice to car crashes everywhere. It was an assault on our national dignity. It was a body blow to our institutions. Trump, simply, immolated himself.

Given the opportunity to denounce white nationalism and white supremacy, Trump told the white supremacist group, the Proud Boys, to “stand by.” Trump blamed fires ravaging the American west on poor forest management, glazing over the fact that they’re largely fueled by federal land. He denied musing on using nuclear weapons on hurricanes (he did).  Worse, he made it crystal clear that he will not accept the results of the election — no matter what a court says.

Pennsylvania got repeated mentions. There were false claims about poll watchers (“Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” Trump said). There were discussions about conditions under the pandemic (Trump compared the Keystone State to a prison). Biden made an obligatory Scranton reference. The debate was in Ohio, but the focus, it seemed, was directed 100 or so miles to the east.

For a formless 90 minutes, barely kept in check by Fox News anchor Chris WallaceTrump raged and interrupted. He rolled over Biden’s answers. His partisans may celebrate it, but the pure fact of the matter is that Trump was revealed for what he is: a thug with a paper-thin ego, who is so afraid of losing, that he tried to bluster through the paucity of his achievements, to downplay the unfathomable tragedy of the pandemic, and to take a sledgehammer to the underpinnings of our electoral system.

Biden, generally, kept his cool. But, speaking for all of us, at one point, he snapped “Will you shut up, man?”

Champion figure skater, and Scranton native, Adam Rippon speaks during a pre-debate rally on Tuesday, 9/29/20 (Screen Capture)

It was a performance, overall, unlikely to change minds among those who already have their minds made up. And that may be enough for Biden.

The former vice president went into Tuesday night’s debate nine percentage points up in the Keystone State, leading Trump 54-45 percent, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll that dropped hours ahead of the first televised match-up between the two men.

The poll showed Biden running strong in Philadelphia and its suburbs and competitive in western Pennsylvania. While it’s more purple than it used to be, Trump was still running ahead in central Pennsylvania and in NEPA, where Trump won in 2016, but is also Biden’s home turf.

The debate presaged what is to come, a literal street-by-street fight for control of the White House. And most of it will be waged here in the Keystone State.

Trump barnstormed central Pennsylvania on Saturday, making a stop at Harrisburg International Airport. The campaign dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to Lancaster County on Tuesday night for a debate watch party.

Biden is set to kick-off an actual whistle-stop train tour that starts today in Cleveland, on its way to stops in Pittsburgh, Greensburg, New Alexandria and Johnstown, Pa. The Biden campaign dropped a new digital ad, targeting Rust Belt voters, ahead of Tuesday night’s match up.

The next debate is Oct. 15. It feels like it’s going to be a very long two weeks.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
It’s the height of campaign season, which means candidates and the interests who support and oppose them are spending geysers of cash to influence your vote. From our Stephen Caruso, here’s an indispensable FAQ on everything you wanted to know about campaign finance law in Pennsylvania, and the efforts afoot to fix a pretty porous system.

Also from Carusoa look at two very different rallies at the state Capitol on Tuesday, and what the groups behind them were trying to accomplish.

From Capital-Star Washington Reporter Laura Olsonhere’s a fuller look at what happened on stage in Cleveland on Tuesday night.

Months into the pandemic, the digital divide is still leaving poor kids behindCapital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa writes.

A summit in Philadelphia next week will address issues of mass incarceration and their impact on local communities, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

From our partners at the Philadelphia Gay News: An LGBTQ troupe will bring a socially distanced circus to an unusual venue in Philadelphia starting Thursday.

On our Commentary Page this morning, a pair of Penn State experts have their say. Opinion regular Simon F. Haeder gets things rolling, detailing eight, separate implications for your healthcare if the U.S. Supreme Court tosses the Affordable Care Act. And political science professor James Piazza says that when politicians use hate speech, political violence increases.

The Inquirer goes deep, debunking Trump’s false claim about poll-watchers in Philadelphia.
COVID-19 vaccine is ‘not going to happen’ this year, a UPMC physician has said, according to the Tribune-Review.
Central Pennsylvania voters reacted with disgust to the debatePennLive reports.
The Morning Call runs down all the times that Pennsylvania was mentioned during Tuesday night’s debate.
The Citizens-Voice hung out with Luzerne County Republicans to watch the debate.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

WHYY-FM updates on the latest pandemic developments in Philadelphia, where 50 percent indoor dining capacity will start Friday.
Three projects in Philadelphia’s Hill District are getting $250K in redevelopment moneyWESA-FM reports.
An internal Democratic poll shows Eugene DePasquale leading GOP U.S. Rep. Scott Perry 50-43 percent in central Pennsylvania’s closely watched 10th Congressional District race, PoliticsPA reports.
NY Mag’s Intelligencer runs down the 5 reasons Joe Biden won the debate.What Goes On.

The House comes in at 11 a.m. The chamber will start its day with a ceremonial session at Grace United Methodist Church on State Street in Harrisburg. The Legislature met there in 1897, when the Capitol burned down that year.
11:30 a.m., PEMA: COVID-19 update from state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.
12 p.m, Capitol Steps: Rally against domestic terrorism, and to ban Nazi and Confederate flags and imagery.You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to reader Fuller Runyan, of Harrisburg, who celebrates today. Congratulations and enjoy the day, sir.

Heavy Rotation.
There’s only one song that makes any sense today. From the ‘Hamilton‘ soundtrack, here’s ‘You’ll Be Back.’

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link.
Aston Villa 
signed Chelsea’s Ross Barkley for a season-long loan as the transfer window closes, the Guardian reports.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.