CORAOPOLIS, Pa. – President Trump's visit to western Pennsylvania Thursday looked, sounded and felt at times like a campaign stop – complete with presidential praise for Republican House candidate Rick Saccone as "a great guy" and "a special person" during a factory tour.
But the White House insisted it was not actually a campaign stop – and Trump mostly kept 25 minutes of remarks focused on the Republican tax plan that his party muscled through Congress in late December.
"It's the economy stupid," Trump said, reprising a line from James Carville, one of Bill Clinton's top strategists on his successful 1992 presidential campaign. "Did you ever hear that one? It's the economy."
And the tax plan, Trump argued, will simply buoy the economy. "Millions of American workers will be seeing signs of America's comeback in their paychecks, in February," he said. "Very soon, your paychecks will be much bigger, because under our tax cuts, you will be keeping more of your hard-earned money."
Trump's double duty at a heavy equipment manufacturer just north of Pittsburgh Thursday – trying to sell his agenda while also staving off the loss of a reliably Republican seat in a district he won by 19 points – was underscored by a tweet he sent ahead of the trip.
"Will be going to Pennsylvania today to give my total support to RICK SACCONE, running for Congress in a Special Election (March 13)," Trump wrote about the state representative running for the seat. "Rick is a great guy. We need more Republicans to continue our already successful agenda!"
Saccone will face the Democratic nominee, Conor Lamb, 33, a Marine veteran and former assistant U.S. attorney, in a March 13 special election.
The president's trip also came as Congress was battling over a short-term funding bill and trying to avoid a government shutdown – a goal that was upended by a Trump tweet Thursday morning. The president directly contradicted the strategy outlined by congressional Republicans by arguing that an extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program "should be part of a long-term solution," not a temporary funding measure.
The Pennsylvania special election was called by Gov. Tom Wolf, D, last year after the abrupt, scandal-fueled fall of the district's Republican congressman, Tim Murphy. A doctor and low-key conservative aligned with opponents of abortion rights, Murphy stepped down in October following reports he had urged a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to consider having an abortion.
Pennsylvania's mostly white southwestern region is a bastion of Trump support and was crucial to Trump's 2016 victory in the state. He won the district, which includes parts of Pittsburgh, by nearly 20 percentage points. Murphy, who was first elected to the House in 2002, ran unopposed.
Speaking before several hundred supporters Thursday, Trump appealed to those base voters.
"We're putting America back to work and we're ensuring the forgotten men and women of our country are never, ever forgotten again," he said, before mentioning "the deplorables," a reference to Hillary Clinton's comment during the 2016 presidential race that half of Trump's supporters belonged in a "basket of deplorables."
"Who would have thought that would turn into a landslide?" Trump said, exaggerating the scale of an election victory in which he won the electoral college while Clinton won the popular vote. "That was not a good phrase that she used. Some things you'd like to have back."
But Democrats are hoping Lamb – a fresh-faced challenger with a compelling story – can score an upset win, though the party has struggled in special elections in similarly Republican-heavy districts in Georgia, Montana and Kansas.
Democrats need to win 24 Republican-held seats to win control of the House. At a private meeting at Camp David this month, House Republican leaders explained to Trump that he faces a possibly dire midterm cycle and included talk of the Pennsylvania race in the presentation, according to people familiar with the discussion.
Lamb's family is prominent in western Pennsylvania Democratic politics: His uncle is Pittsburgh's city controller and his grandfather, Thomas Lamb, was the party's leader in the state Senate and worked closely with late Democratic governor Robert P. Casey Jr., the father of Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa.
Saccone, 59, is a vocal Trump supporter who highlights his Christian faith and support for gun rights. An Air Force veteran, he is widely seen as a credible Republican candidate with experience at the state capital but without a high-profile on the national level.
Trump's appearance here marked his first significant foray to a battleground since he encouraged his supporters last month while in Pensacola, Fla., to elect Alabama Senate candidate Roy S. Moore, who was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct during encounters when they were teenagers and Moore was in his early 30s. Moore's defeat in a deep-red state was a blow to Trump, who has prized his ability to rally his base behind his causes.
Now the Keystone State contest has become the latest test for the White House – and an attempt to bounce back after the Alabama loss. Vice President Mike Pence and roughly a half dozen Cabinet members are also expected to travel here, according to administration officials. In recent weeks, several White House aides have bolstered Saccone's campaign with counsel on fundraising and strategy, the officials said.
Trump also made a point of noting that he planned to return to the district to support Saccone – possibly in the form of an official campaign stop.