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Scott Wagner’s unconventional campaign for Pa. governor: ‘Who allowed him to say that?’

Low on cash, trailing in public polls by double digits and warning that some in the GOP establishment are undermining his campaign, Republican gubernatorial candidate Wagner increasingly resembles a provocateur typecast for the Trump era.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner on stage during a Philadelphia campaign stop with the conservative icons known as Diamond (Lynnette Hardaway), center, and Silk (Rochelle Richardson) on Oct. 26, 2018.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner on stage during a Philadelphia campaign stop with the conservative icons known as Diamond (Lynnette Hardaway), center, and Silk (Rochelle Richardson) on Oct. 26, 2018.Read moreCharles Fox / Staff Photographer

SCRANTON — Never might Scott Wagner's struggle to find a winning message in his uphill bid for governor have been as clear as it was in a two-hour window last Tuesday.

President Trump had declared that Democratic "mobs" and the caravan of migrants approaching from Central America would be key issues in next month's midterm elections. Other Republican candidates adopted the script, including Wagner.

At 10:42 a.m. he posted a statement on Facebook warning that "an unprecedented mob of thousands strong" was marching toward the United States.

But two hours later, given a chance to double down on the message — and standing right next to Trump's son Eric, no less — Wagner punted. Speaking to dozens of supporters and volunteers packed inside Lackawanna County GOP headquarters for a lunchtime rally, he made no mention of immigration.

>> PHOTO GALLERY: GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner campaigns in Lakawanna County

Instead, Wagner said a victory for the incumbent Gov. Wolf in November would mean a huge tax hike for Pennsylvanians — and no chance of eliminating school property taxes. "So there's a tremendous amount at stake in this state," Wagner said.

Just over a week out from the Nov. 6. election, Wagner is low on cash, far behind in the polls, and grumbling  that some in the GOP establishment are undermining his campaign.

But from the outset, he has resembled a provocateur typecast for the Trump era, at times unfiltered if not unpredictable. So political observers are watching Wagner down the stretch — if just to see whether Trump's say-and-do-anything playbook can work for anyone not named Donald Trump.

In recent weeks, his bid already took a number of surreal twists and turns: a live video saying he would "stomp all over" Wolf's face with golf spikes; a fund-raiser headlined by Trump ally and Fox News personality "Judge Jeanine" Pirro; an impromptu encounter in Philadelphia with skeptical union members.

On Friday, he campaigned in the city with conservative icons Diamond and Silk, the pro-Trump North Carolina sisters who gained internet fame during the 2016 presidential campaign as black women who vocally supported a candidate known for stoking racial divisions.

At a Hilton ballroom packed with hundreds of mostly white Wagner supporters, Diamond and Silk (real names Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson) took the stage to raucous applause, recounting how they "got off what we call the Democrat plantation" to join the Republican Party a couple years ago.

In an hour of performance art mixed with an on-stage interview of Wagner — his campaign paid them $25,000 for the appearance, finance records show — they bashed the news media and repeated the debunked falsehood spreading on social media that migrants in the caravan had burned the American flag,

For his part, Wagner stayed focused mostly on state issues, venturing that Philadelphia was among the top five most corrupt cities in the country, and pledged to "drain the swamp," cut taxes and bring "an end to sanctuary cities."

He typically shies away from hot-button cultural issues, but at the same time is unapologetic in his approach. Asked about the immigrant caravan in Mexico, Wagner said in an interview that he believed "somebody is paying the people and orchestrating."

"It's too organized," he said, indulging in an unfounded conspiracy theory that's been propagated by Trump and conservative media. "They're coming in large groups. Something's going on."

Such stances weren't part of the image the owner of the York County waste-hauling company, Penn Waste, built en route to winning a historic write-in campaign to the state Senate in a 2014 special election.

He's long had a brash style — he once promised to brandish a baseball bat to keep his colleagues in line — but his tone now "seems a bit more caustic" and "darker," said Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Borick sees him as "trapped" — running against a fairly well-liked incumbent who won't take the bait, and in a political moment that rewards the identity politics and culture wars he's not most comfortable fighting.

It doesn't help Wagner that opposition to Trump is fueling Democratic energy in Pennsylvania and across the country, especially in areas such as suburban Philadelphia. Wagner trails Wolf in public polls by an average of more than 16 percentage points.

"What do you do? I guess you keep rolling the dice," Borick said.

Unforced errors

In the Republican primary, Wagner presented himself as a Mr. Fix-It who'd cut regulations and "take out the trash" in the state Capitol, his way of pledging to cut waste and fraud.

But he's made several missteps during the general election campaign — his first for statewide office and only his second overall — calling a climate change activist "young and naive" at a town hall in Montgomery County and reciting parts of a letter written by an anonymous Trump supporter and published by the conspiracy website InfoWars that compared immigrants to raccoons.

Most notably, there was the now infamous "golf spikes" video, which he posted on Facebook and fed into the Wolf campaign's narrative that Wagner lacked the temperament to be governor.

"Who allowed him to say that?" said Vjekoslav Grgas, 32, a Wilkes-Barre appliance technician who came to see Wagner and Eric Trump in Scranton on Tuesday. Grgas, who was wearing a "Hillary for Prison" T-shirt, said Wagner's remarks made him "sound like a thug" and made it difficult to argue that the left had been hijacked by extremists.

Wagner, 63, grew up on a farm and didn't graduate from college: He's betting that for all the slip-ups, voters will reward his authenticity.

"I mean, I'm constantly selling all the time," Wagner said in the interview Tuesday, describing similarities between his approach to business and politics. "And I've been doing this for 40 years. Tom Wolf, he doesn't understand that concept. You have to connect with people. And people know whether you're genuine or not. They smell it."

Wagner boasted that he's attended more than 700 campaign events this year.

He hit No. 702 a few hours later, stopping by a diner in Luzerne County, which helped Trump win Pennsylvania and the presidency after supporting President Barack Obama in 2012.

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A dozen supporters, many of them wearing "Wagner for Governor" T-shirts and hats, had gathered at D's Diner in Plains Township, outside Wilkes-Barre.

Wagner asked one local, retired accountant Gary Zafia, about a new public school built in the area at a reported cost of $130 million. "It's going to be more than that with change orders!" exclaimed Zafia, 65.

The conversation turned to taxes and potholes, teacher salaries ("outrageous!" one man shouted), immigration, then the Wolf campaign's negative ads and bias in the news media.

A woman mused that Wolf's running mate, John Fetterman — the lieutenant governor candidate recognizable for his 6-foot-8 frame and tattooed arms — "looks like MS-13," the brutal gang Trump has mistakenly held up as a symbol of failed immigration laws.

A Wolf-Fetterman administration, the Wagner supporter worried, would create a "socialist state." Wagner chose to neither confirm nor deny her remarks. "People should do their research," he said.

Courting Democrats

Trump's victory showed that Republicans could ignore Philadelphia and still win the state. But Wagner hasn't shied from the city. On a brisk Tuesday night in mid-October, he came to a "Democrats for Wagner" gathering on the edges of Society Hill. Inside the campaign office — around the corner from Condom Kingdom and other stores you'll find only on South Street — an unlikely mix of supporters ate cheese and crackers, sushi and wine.

Before Wagner made his way in, he encountered a group of building trades union members on the sidewalk. Some held "Wolf for Governor" signs.

They were skeptical of the Republican nominee, a longtime union foe. Did he support so-called right-to-work laws, which have weakened unions in other states? Did he support unions? What was he doing here?

Ringed by the crowd of mostly black workers, Wagner didn't hold back: He was a white mid-state Republican trying, he said, to make his case in Philadelphia. "I'm doing something different," he said.

He said he was there to learn about the city's problems, but also griped about some himself: Philadelphia's stubbornly high poverty, for example, and little things such as parks where "the grass is 8 to 10 inches high and there's trash everywhere."

"You guys work hard," Wagner continued. "A lot of you work in the trades, you work outside. It's not easy work."

He predicted their incomes would go up 20 percent over the next five years, citing an aging population and labor shortage.

"Promise that? Promise that?" one person asked. "What quality of jobs?" asked another.

The mostly cordial exchange ended in something of a stalemate. The waste company owner made his sales pitch. The opposing side, apparently unconvinced, dispersed.

But not before Wagner shook one of the protester's hands: a peace offering.