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Scott Wagner jokes that Russia, Manafort will help him. Was it a gaffe?

Scott Wagner, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, joked that "the Russians are going to help me with [Gov.] Tom Wolf."

Scott Wagner, pictured in May after winning the Republican gubernatorial primary, joked on Friday that Russia would help him defeat Gov. Wolf in November.
Scott Wagner, pictured in May after winning the Republican gubernatorial primary, joked on Friday that Russia would help him defeat Gov. Wolf in November.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Scott Wagner likes a good Russia joke.

On Monday, the Huffington Post posted a recording of the Pennsylvania Republican nominee for governor joking to a crowd in Wyomissing, "By the way, the Russians are going to help me with Tom Wolf."

"If I have to use Paul Manafort, I will," Wagner says to laughter in a restaurant during a campaign stop Friday, referring to the former Trump campaign chairman who was convicted on eight counts Tuesday in connection with the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Wagner, a former state senator and self-described garbageman who owns a waste-hauling company called Penn Waste in York County, is nothing if not colorful.

When I stopped by his office at Penn Waste in January, there was a cardboard cutout of John Wayne wearing a Wagner for Governor T-shirt. "John was different," Wagner said. "He was a gunslinger."

A Make America Great Again hat sat on a shelf alongside a hard hat and glass-encased bullets he bought at a National Rifle Association banquet.

He greeted me with a file in hand that I told him looked like an opposition-research dossier. "I just got off the phone with Vladimir Putin," Wagner joked, explaining that the Russian president had told him everything he needed to know about me.

During a phone interview last week, reporters for the Inquirer and Daily News informed Wagner he was on speaker phone and asked if he was comfortable being recorded.

"Yeah, I figured you had a couple Russians in the room," he joked.

Which is to say: Wagner's quip about help from Russia was, well, Wagner being Wagner.

Wagner campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said Wagner "was obviously joking when he made those comments."

"He thinks that Russia's interference in the 2016 Election was real and he pledges to work with the federal government to secure fair elections in Pennsylvania as governor," Romeo said in an email.

Naturally, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party had a different take, saying Wagner was "attempting to undermine the integrity of our democracy."

The remark raises another question: Does a campaign "gaffe" — think Mitt Romney's remark that "47 percent" of Americans don't pay taxes — matter at a time when President Trump has defied just about every conventional rule of politics?

Maybe it depends on the subject matter. Wagner faced some backlash last month when a young woman asked whether political contributions from the fossil-fuel industry had influenced his position on climate change, and he responded by calling her "a little young and naive."

"Are we here to elect a governor, or are we here to elect a scientist?" Wagner said at the town hall-style meeting in Montgomery County. "I'm here to be the governor."

A couple of weeks later, Wagner told another audience: "Listen, climate change is happening. But let's be realistic. I don't have an agenda to go to a complete 100 percent renewable-energy program, because it's not realistic."

Then on Monday night during a town hall in Erie, a man who identified himself as Catholic asked if Wagner would consider eliminating "the recognition and benefits of same-sex marriage."

Wagner punted, saying the legislature would have to pass a bill, at which point he "would have to give that consideration."

A Democratic tracker captured the exchange on video, and the Wolf campaign declared Wagner a "dangerous candidate who would take Pennsylvania backwards."

Tuesday morning, Wagner's campaign put out a statement saying that the candidate had been "caught off guard by the question" and that as governor, he would veto "any bill that would restrict marriage rights for same-sex couples."

The campaign also noted that Wagner has sponsored legislation that would extend antidiscrimination protections to LGBT people. One of his primary opponents attacked Wagner over his support for that legislation.

You might say the conventional rules of politics still applied, at least in this case.