Ahead of congressional special, Trump rallies Pennsylvania base, pummels Biden on trade deals

President Donald Trump and state Rep. Fred Keller, campaign in Montoursville, Pa. on Monday ahead of a special election for the 12th Congressional District (Capital_Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

MONTOURSVILLE, Pa. — Surrounded by a sea of cheering, MAGA-hatted supporters, President Donald Trump returned to Pennsylvania Monday, tearing into former Vice President Joe Biden, as he bragged about his record on jobs and the economy.

“He left you for another state, and he didn’t take care of you because he didn’t take care of your jobs,” Trump said of Biden, the former Delaware senator who’s campaigned heavily in Pennsylvania and made much of his Scranton roots. “He let other countries come in and rip off America.”

The official reason for Trump’s visit to Williamsport Regional Airport was to plug the candidacy of Republican state Rep. Fred Keller, who’s vying with Democrat Marc Friedenberg in Tuesday’s special election for the vast 12th Congressional District. The seat was formerly held by five-term GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, who abruptly resigned in January, citing health issues.

After a few false starts, Trump brought Keller on stage, presenting him as a candidate to cut government and serve as a bulwark against such Democratic initiatives as Medicare for All.

But it was clear that Biden was on Trump’s mind Monday. And he made a direct play for support to an audience key to his 2020 chances, telling them at one point “I gotta win this state.”

According to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, 54 percent of Pennsylvania voters said they disapprove of Trump’s job performance. In a hypothetical matchup, Biden led Trump 53-42 percent in that same poll.

The former two-term vice president, who campaigned in Philadelphia on Saturday, is positioning himself as the Democrat best able to defeat Trump in 2020.

Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr., who warmed up the crowd, spent a lot of time trying to tie Biden to past trade deals — including support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership.

But it wasn’t trade on the mind of many of his supporters in the crowd.

Joyce Bucknor, a 69-year-old minister from near Lock Haven, said she’s backing Trump because of his work as a stalwart social conservative.

Even if the thrice-married casino magnate may not have the best personal morals, Bucknor thinks Trump’s political priorities are worth backing.

“If he’s a Christian or not, it’s not the point,” Bucknor said. “It’s what he’s supporting.”

That includes Trump’s opposition to abortion access and his promise to veto a bill recently passed by the Democratic-controlled House that gives LGBTQ Americans federal civil rights protections.

Bucknor said she’s concerned that the bill could, in protecting gay, lesbian, and trans individuals from discrimination, instead discriminate against her for following her interpretation of the Bible.

Much political hay has been made of how blue collar whites in Pennsylvania will vote come 2020, as both parties concentrate their political efforts on the Keystone State.

Jim Thomas, a 62-year-old resident of Jersey Shore, Pa., said he’s backing Trump because the president has accomplished everything promised — unless obstructed by congressional Democrats, as is the case with immigration.

A registered Republican, Thomas said he voted for former President Barack Obama once, and might have voted for Democrats in the past.

But now, “how can a conservative Republican vote for that?” Thomas said referring to such progressive policies as the Green New Deal.

Republicans have a nearly 18,000-voter advantage in Lycoming County, which Trump won with 70 percent of the county’s vote in 2016.

But the president’s margin of victory was much slimmer statewide: Trump won Pennsylvania, one of three former industrial states he swung his way to earn the presidency, by just 40,000 votes.

In the 2018 midterms, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf cruised to reelection against a Republican candidate, Scott Wagner, who often mirrored Trump.

That included running up margins in the suburbs. Wolf even turned a historically red county, Cumberland, from red to blue.

But Pennsylvania GOP Chair Val DiGiorigio expressed confidence that Trump’s economic message can still cut through in purple suburbs, and maybe even make a dent in ocean blue cities.

DiGorigio thinks Trump can keep his base, while also running on criminal justice reform and low unemployment among black Americans (which has been falling since 2011).

The president can “go into places like Philadelphia and other big cities in swing states and say, ‘I’ve done more for the African American and Latino community in two and a half years of Donald Trump than Barack Obama did in eight,'” DiGorigio said.

On Monday, Trump made no references aimed at expanding his base. But his confidence was clearly buoyed by strong economic numbers.

“Those debates will be easy, when we meet whoever we meet,” Trump said, adding: “I don’t know how the hell you lose this election.”

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