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The Trump two-step: How Pat Toomey is trying, awkwardly, to keep his job

WASHINGTON, Pa. - As Sen. Patrick Toomey convened a roundtable discussion with local law enforcement leaders here in Western Pennsylvania, he made no boasts about a big, beautiful wall, or rounding up illegal immigrants, or banning Muslims.

WASHINGTON, Pa. - As Sen. Patrick Toomey convened a roundtable discussion with local law enforcement leaders here in Western Pennsylvania, he made no boasts about a big, beautiful wall, or rounding up illegal immigrants, or banning Muslims.

Instead, Toomey asked questions and listened. He spoke softly and judiciously. The message he hoped voters in this battleground state would take away was clear: I may be a Republican, but I'm no Donald Trump.

"Stylistically, we're extremely different," Toomey said in an interview. "The way we talk about issues, I think, is very, very different. . . . I think people understand that I'm a very different person, and they'll make that separation."

The two men's fates are intertwined: Trump sees Pennsylvania as a must-win state, and the outcome of Toomey's race could determine whether Republicans maintain control of the Senate.

But they are charting divergent courses here. Trump has been stumping in hardcore Republican rural areas and in declining manufacturing towns to galvanize aggrieved, blue-collar white voters. He has also suggested that the only way he can lose the state is if Democrats cheat.

Toomey, meanwhile, is courting more moderate voters who regularly swing state elections in the Lehigh Valley and in the cities and suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Polls show they are inclined to back Democrat Hillary Clinton for president, but Toomey needs some of them to cross over and vote for him, too.

For Toomey, this is a new strategy born of necessity. Once celebrated by his party's grass-roots activists as a conservative purist, Toomey has labored throughout his first term to soften his image, most prominently by co-authoring gun-control legislation backed by Democrats.

"Pat Toomey had positioned himself extremely well to win reelection," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pennsylvania. "He has done everything right that is within his control. The challenge for Pat Toomey is things outside his control - that would be the top of the ticket."

Toomey's careful posturing may amount to nothing in the season of Trump. The presidential nominee's tanking poll numbers in Pennsylvania could torpedo Toomey's reelection chances.

Clinton - who campaigned in Philadelphia on Tuesday - leads Trump 49 percent to 38 percent in the state, while Toomey trails Democrat Katie McGinty by one percentage point, within the margin of error, according to an Aug. 4 Franklin & Marshall College poll. In the Philadelphia suburbs, Clinton's lead is a whopping 40 percentage points.

Despite Pennsylvania's history of ticket-splitting, analysts here say it will be exceedingly difficult for Toomey to win if Clinton beats Trump by double digits.

"Can he get enough ticket-splitters to vote?" asked G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall poll. "If he doesn't win the 'burbs and he doesn't cut the vote down in the cities, I don't know where he gets the votes."

Like other endangered Republican senators, Toomey is dancing an exceedingly awkward two-step as he tries to keep from alienating Trump's fervent supporters while simultaneously distancing himself from Trump and his rhetoric.

Consider Toomey's personal paralysis: Fifteen months into a Trump campaign that has captivated the world, the senator insisted in the interview that he is still "learning things about this nominee" and has not decided whether to endorse him.

Toomey initially endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for president, and then voted for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas since Rubio had dropped out by the time Pennsylvania had its primary. Toomey said he has ruled out voting for Clinton.

"Look, Donald Trump is a completely unique nominee," Toomey said. Toomey said he finds some of Trump's comments "disturbing" but praised his selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as a running mate, as well as his list of potential Supreme Court nominees. "It's mixed and it's without precedent, and that's why it's difficult to make a decision."

Toomey's stance puts him at odds with one of Pennsylvania's more successful moderate Republicans, Tom Ridge, a former governor and homeland security secretary. Ridge was among 50 senior GOP national security officials who recently signed a letter stating that Trump "would be the most reckless president in American history."

Democrats say Toomey's indecision exposes a lack of courage and conviction.

"You can't be a little bit with Trump. You're either all-in with Trump, or you join his many colleagues in the Senate who have denounced Trump - and [Toomey] is in this nether region," said John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, a town in Trump's stronghold of Western Pennsylvania who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Senate nomination.

Toomey's indecision has infuriated many Trump supporters across the state, which Trump carried decisively in the April primary.

"Our 'Rock the Knock' folks, 'Doors for Donald,' they don't want to show up for Pat Toomey," said Tricia Cunningham, volunteer coordinator for Trump's Pennsylvania campaign. "How do we support a candidate that is not endorsing 'We the people of Pennsylvania?' "

A weight-loss and wellness coach, Cunningham has become one of Trump's biggest boosters here. She recorded a voice-mail message on her cellphone that says, cheerfully, "Have a Trumptastic day!" Cunningham said Toomey and his allies courted her for several months, and she decided last week to support the senator.

"I took a bullet in the back by publicly endorsing Senator Toomey," Cunningham said, explaining that Toomey won her over with his fight against Philadelphia's sanctuary city policy that effectively gives safe harbor to undocumented immigrants.

Jeffrey Lord, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist who appears frequently on CNN as a Trump supporter, said Toomey is "Specter-izing himself" with his posture on Trump. This was a reference to the late senator Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican whom Toomey challenged unsuccessfully from the right in 2004. Six years later, in the face of a repeat Toomey challenge, Specter switched parties and lost in the Democratic primary. Toomey went on to win the seat.

"When you play this too cute, as Toomey seems to be doing . . . you alienate Trump supporters and you antagonize people out there who don't like Trump and think you're being a wimp," Lord said. "It's a mistake."

If Toomey had his way, he would never have to talk about his party's "unique nominee." But the reality of life as a Republican senator is different.

Toomey skipped last month's Republican National Convention to spend time campaigning in Pennsylvania, but when he stopped by a restaurant in Chambersburg hoping to talk about local issues, all voters wanted to ask him about was Trump.

In June, when Toomey tried to promote a bill to toughen school screenings against pedophiles - an act that could help him make inroads with suburban voters - reporters peppered him with questions about Trump's latest controversy: His race-based attacks on a federal judge.

Democratic operatives could not have scripted it any better.

"If ever there was such a thing as a big orange albatross, Pat Toomey knows what it's all about," said T.J. Rooney, a former state Democratic Party chairman. "He's absolutely mistaken if he believes for a minute that everything that comes out of Donald Trump's claptrap isn't going to be worn by Pat Toomey like the hair shirt. He owns every bit of the crazy talk."

Toomey is leaving himself flexibility to break decisively with Trump this fall, should the celebrity businessman's campaign implode. Pressed in the interview how he could be so indecisive when so much already is known about Trump, Toomey said: "We still have several months to go. I'm going to make a decision when I have to make my decision."

At that point, four minutes into the interview, an aide cut it off. The senator had to go, she said. Busy schedule. But as the aide hustled her boss out of the room, there was one more question: Does Toomey think Harrisburg, the state's capitol, resembles a war zone?

A few days earlier, Trump declared at a boisterous rally that as he peered out his airplane window he thought the city "looked like a war zone." The gaffe set off a flurry of outrage in the local papers.

"I do not think that Harrisburg is a war zone or bears any resemblance to one," Toomey said, drawing yet another distinction with his party's standard-bearer.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.