One cap­tured this bat­tle­ground; the other thinks he’ll reclaim it

Penn­syl­va­nia will see a lot of the pres­i­dent and his main ri­val

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Janet Hook and Eli Stokols

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Trump and Joe Bi­den have twin ob­ses­sions: with each other and with the state of Penn­syl­va­nia.

Like iron fil­ings to a mag­net, both will be drawn in the com­ing days to Penn­syl­va­nia, which was key to Trump’s vic­tory in 2016 and would be cen­tral to al­most any sce­nario for a Demo­cratic vic­tory in the 2020 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Their trips — Bi­den on Satur­day, Trump on Mon­day — el­e­vate an emerg­ing ri­valry that has them locked in a wrestler’s grip long be­fore Democrats even choose a nom­i­nee.

Trump, fearing Bi­den poses the most se­ri­ous threat in in­dus­trial states like Penn­syl­va­nia, is try­ing to di­min­ish him with a bar­rage of tweets and de­ri­sive com­ments. Bi­den wel­comes the at­ten­tion and sees it as val­i­dat­ing his cen­tral ar­gu­ment to Demo­cratic vot­ers: that he’s the can­di­date best equipped to beat Trump.

To­gether they are pay­ing lit­tle at­ten­tion to the 22

other Democrats run­ning for the party’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, act­ing as if the start­ing gun has al­ready been fired on the gen­eral elec­tion.

Their Penn­syl­va­nia itin­er­ar­ies are em­blem­atic of their com­pet­ing po­lit­i­cal strate­gies. Trump, aim­ing to en­er­gize the white work­ing­class vot­ers who brought him to vic­tory, plans to hold a rally in ru­ral Ly­coming County in the cen­tral part of the state, which went for Trump by nearly 45 per­cent­age points in 2016.

Bi­den, hop­ing to make up for his party’s 2016 short­fall among black and work­ing­class vot­ers, will hold his first large-scale 2020 cam­paign rally in Philadel­phia, a bas­tion of black Demo­cratic strength. Bi­den’s first cam­paign event was a union-heavy af­fair in Pitts­burgh three weeks ago, when he threw down the glove be­fore the pres­i­dent.

“If I’m go­ing to be able to beat Don­ald Trump in 2020, it’s go­ing to hap­pen here,” he said.

Trump’s visit, dur­ing which he is slated to cam­paign for a GOP can­di­date in a spe­cial elec­tion who looks to be a shoo-in, comes at a per­ilous time po­lit­i­cally. Pub­lic sur­veys show Bi­den lead­ing the pres­i­dent in this cru­cial bat­tle­ground.

The lat­est Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity poll in Penn­syl­va­nia found Bi­den out-polls Trump 53% to 42%, with es­pe­cially wide mar­gins among in­de­pen­dent vot­ers and women.

The Trump team’s own polling shows him trail­ing in the state.

That’s a far cry from his stun­ning 2016 vic­tory in Penn­syl­va­nia, which, along with nar­row wins in Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan, de­mol­ished Democrats’ “blue wall” of sup­port across the in­dus­trial heart­land. Not since 1988 had a Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee car­ried Penn­syl­va­nia or Michi­gan. Wis­con­sin hadn’t voted for a Repub­li­can nom­i­nee since 1984.

But Trump’s mar­gin of vic­tory in Penn­syl­va­nia was only about 44,000 votes out of about 6 mil­lion cast.

Ever since that up­set, warn­ing signs for the GOP have been flash­ing in Penn­syl­va­nia. In spe­cial elec­tions in 2017, Democrats flipped some long-held GOP lo­cal of­fices, and Demo­crat Conor Lamb, a cen­trist, won a House seat in the heart of Trump coun­try. The 2018 midterm elec­tion was a statewide blowout as Democrats won the U.S. Se­nate and gu­ber­na­to­rial races by dou­ble-digit mar­gins.

Mov­ing to get a grip on the si­t­u­a­tion, the Trump po­lit­i­cal team a few weeks ago trav­eled to Har­ris­burg, Pa., for a meet­ing with Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee and state GOP of­fi­cials to ad­dress con­cerns over party in­fra­struc­ture, or­ga­ni­za­tional readi­ness and their string of losses, ac­cord­ing to two of­fi­cials with knowl­edge of the meet­ing.

The Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing David Ur­ban, who over­saw Trump’s 2016 op­er­a­tion in Penn­syl­va­nia, and Trump 2020 po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tors Bill Stepien and Chris Carr — “came to make it clear that they’ll be run­ning the show,” one at­tendee said.

Trump’s hope for hold­ing on to the state de­pends heav­ily on gal­va­niz­ing Trump vot­ers who may not have turned out in 2018.

“Democrats are ex­cited about what’s been hap­pen­ing here, but you have a very dif­fer­ent elec­torate in a pres­i­den­tial year than in off years,” said Char­lie Gerow, a Repub­li­can con­sul­tant in Har­ris­burg.

Ur­ban, who will serve as an in­for­mal ad­vi­sor to Trump in 2020, has tried to keep the pres­i­dent’s fo­cus on pos­i­tive eco­nomic news.

“If the ques­tion is al­ways ‘Are you bet­ter off than you were four years ago?’ peo­ple in Penn­syl­va­nia will say, ‘Yeah, we are bet­ter off,’ and there are num­bers that point to that,” Ur­ban said.

Penn­syl­va­nia’s un­em­ploy­ment rate in March dropped to 3.9% — the low­est since 1976. The Quin­nip­iac poll found that 54% be­lieve they are financiall­y bet­ter off to­day than they were in 2016. But that does not nec­es­sar­ily trans­late into po­lit­i­cal vic­tory, as in­di­cated by the num­bers in the same poll show­ing Trump trail­ing Bi­den.

Matt Mor­ri­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Work­ing Amer­ica, a la­bor-backed grass­roots po­lit­i­cal group, said Democrats needed to of­fer sub­stan­tive eco­nomic al­ter­na­tives to counter Trump’s claims on the econ­omy in Penn­syl­va­nia.

“Even in smaller com­mu­ni­ties, you are start­ing to see a pickup in job growth and wages, but this is try­ing to over­come a 40-year slide,” Mor­ri­son said. “A Demo­crat is not go­ing to win those vot­ers by say­ing, ‘See, that guy failed.’ ”

Bi­den’s ap­proach so far has been to promise in gen­eral terms to lift up the mid­dle class and to ap­peal to peo­ple who are not ben­e­fit­ing from re­cent eco­nomic growth and Trump-era tax breaks.

“The stock mar­ket is roar­ing, but you don’t feel it,” Bi­den said in Pitts­burgh. “There’s a $2-tril­lion tax cut last year. Did you feel it? Did you get any­thing from it? Of course not. Of course not. All of it went to folks at the top and cor­po­ra­tions that pay no taxes.”

Bi­den’s Penn­syl­va­nia launch also sends a mes­sage to Demo­cratic pri­mary vot­ers: As a Scran­ton-born cen­trist, he brings unique strengths to beat­ing Trump in Penn­syl­va­nia and across the in­dus­trial belt.

“When you look at Penn­syl­va­nia, Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan, th­ese are the con­stituen­cies that Joe Bi­den has fought for his en­tire life,” said John An­za­lone, a Demo­cratic poll­ster who ad­vises Bi­den.

Philadel­phia, where Bi­den is bas­ing his cam­paign head­quar­ters and hold­ing his kick­off rally, is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to Democrats if they are to make up for the fail­ings of Clin­ton’s 2016 cam­paign. Al­though Clin­ton won the city and sur­round­ing sub­ur­ban coun­ties, the mar­gins were not as big as she needed to over­come the mas­sive in­crease in ru­ral turnout that car­ried Trump to vic­tory. African Amer­i­can turnout in Philadel­phia fell. Bi­den hopes his ties with the black com­mu­nity will al­low him to change that in 2020.

Bi­den’s Demo­cratic ri­vals don’t buy his ar­gu­ment that he has a unique lock on places like Penn­syl­va­nia. The Quin­nip­iac poll showed that, in hy­po­thet­i­cal matchups, Sens. Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont and El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts also out-polled Trump, al­though Bi­den did so by the widest mar­gin.

But Re­pub­li­cans con­cede that Bi­den will be a much more for­mi­da­ble op­po­nent than Clin­ton in 2016.

“He was raised in north­east Penn­syl­va­nia, spent a large part of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer in south­east Penn­syl­va­nia, and fan­cies him­self as a can­di­date who can garner a lot of blue-col­lar sup­port from the build­ing trades — all of those are ar­eas that were non­tra­di­tional sup­port­ers of the Trump cam­paign last time,” said Mike DeVan­ney, a GOP con­sul­tant in Pitts­burgh.

But with months to go un­til the first pri­mary con­tests, Re­pub­li­cans are hope­ful that Bi­den, should he survive the pri­mary, will emerge se­ri­ously bruised and pushed far to the left.

“He’s ob­vi­ously a for­mi­da­ble can­di­date, but he hasn’t even been at­tacked yet,” DeVan­ney said. “His num­bers have only one way to go, and that’s down.”

Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Im­ages Spencer Platt Getty Im­ages

PRES­I­DENT TRUMP up­set Hil­lary Clin­ton in Penn­syl­va­nia and other in­dus­trial states.

JOE BI­DEN is telling Demo­cratic vot­ers that he’s the can­di­date best equipped to beat Trump.

Mark Makela Getty Im­ages

SUP­PORT­ERS of Pres­i­dent Trump rally in Beth­le­hem, Pa., last month. Trump’s cam­paign team is try­ing to keep the pres­i­dent’s fo­cus on pos­i­tive eco­nomic news. Penn­syl­va­nia’s job­less rate is the low­est since 1976.

Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Im­ages

JOE BI­DEN cam­paigns in Pitts­burgh last month. The lat­est Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity poll in Penn­syl­va­nia found Bi­den lead­ing Trump 53% to 42%, with es­pe­cially wide mar­gins among in­de­pen­dent vot­ers and women.

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