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Biden courts swing voters in Pennsylvania while Trump rallies at the White House

Biden’s trip to Erie was his latest swing thought parts of Western Pennsylvania that shunned Democrats four years ago and swung to Trump.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at the Plumbers Local Union No. 27 training center on Saturday in Erie, Pa.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at the Plumbers Local Union No. 27 training center on Saturday in Erie, Pa.Read moreCarolyn Kaster / AP

Joe Biden traveled Saturday to a union hall in Erie, where he pledged to fight for working-class Americans and rebuild the economy from the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

“America deserves a president who understands what people are going through,” Biden said. “You’re facing real challenges right now, and the last thing you need is a president who exacerbates them.”

Biden’s trip to Erie was his latest swing through parts of Pennsylvania that shunned Democrats four years ago, while President Donald Trump campaigned from the White House — where he remained after contracting COVID-19 himself.

Biden made an explicit pitch to union workers, many of whom abandoned long-standing ties to the Democratic Party in backing Trump. “There’s going to be such a race for job creation for unions, you’re not going to believe it,” Biden said. “The only power we have is union power. You’re the guys who keep the barbarians on the other side of the gate from taking everything."

Erie County was one of three in Pennsylvania that backed President Barack Obama before swinging to Trump in 2016, breaking from its Democratic roots and making the county a symbol of the dramatic shift that powered Trump to victory. It’s now seen as one of the most important swing counties in one of the most important swing states.

“However Erie County goes, I think Pennsylvania is going to go,” said State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, a Democrat who represents part of the area.

“If Biden takes back Erie County, that’s a sign that he’s winning Pennsylvania,” said Mark Holman, a longtime aide to former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, who grew up in Erie and represented the county in Congress.

» READ MORE: Jill Biden says women in the Philly suburbs where she grew up 'may determine the entire election’

Ridge has endorsed Biden, who thanked him publicly during Saturday’s visit.

“We may not agree on everything,” Biden said. “We agree on this: This is a moment to put country above party."

Trump, who had initially raised the prospect of returning to Pennsylvania as early as Sunday even though he may still be contagious, held a rally with hundreds of supporters outside the White House on Saturday. His campaign said he will visit the state on Tuesday for a rally in Johnstown. Trump’s doctor said late Saturday that he is “no longer considered a transmission risk to others,” though he notably did not say that the president had tested negative for the virus.

The president spoke to a crowd gathered on the White House lawn, saying “I feel great" and thanking Americans for their prayers while he was hospitalized. But while he acknowledged his illness, Trump’s 18-minute remarks — significantly shorter than his usual campaign speeches — focused largely on the “law-and-order” message he has tried to put front and center in his campaign.

» READ MORE: Trump’s campaign lost another voting lawsuit in Pennsylvania

The event, touted as a peaceful protest by Black and Latino voters to support police, was organized by high-profile Black Trump supporters Candace Owens and Brandon Tatum.

“You just marched to the White House because you understand to protect the lives of Black Americans and all Americans, you have to have your police support you,” Trump said. “If the left gains power they’ll launch a nationwide crusade against law enforcement.”

And amid concerns among Republicans that his rush to resume campaigning will serve to highlight his handling of a pandemic that has left him politically wounded less than a month before Election Day, Trump again downplayed the virus that has now infected the upper ranks of his government and killed more than 213,000 people in the United States.

“It’s going to disappear, it is disappearing,” Trump said, touting treatments and a vaccine that he has promised is coming far sooner than public health officials expect.

New cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania have been rising in recent weeks, and the state on Saturday reported the highest count of daily confirmed cases since April.

» READ MORE: Why won’t the White House say when President Trump last tested negative for COVID-19?

Following his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in August, it was the second time Trump has used the White House for an overtly political rally — something legal experts have decried as a likely violation of the Hatch Act, which bars the use of government property for political purposes.

Also Saturday, a federal judge in Pittsburgh ruled against Trump’s campaign in a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s rules for mail voting and poll watchers, the latest legal setback for the president in a flurry of election-related litigation.

And former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, visited Luzerne County in Northeastern Pennsylvania, which Trump won in 2016 after it backed Obama in 2012 — and where support for the president has remained strong. Speaking in Kingston, Giuliani called Trump “as strong as an ox” and blamed Biden and Democratic governors for overstating the danger of the pandemic to hurt Trump politically, according to the Citizens’ Voice.

“Do you think the Democratic governors in a lot of these states are holding the economy down on purpose?” Giuliani said. “They don’t give a damn if you hurt people. They don’t care how many people go bankrupt. People are starving, and they don’t give a damn.”

» READ MORE: Here’s how the economy has fared under Trump and what he and Biden plan to do about it

In Erie, Biden’s campaign acknowledged the county’s 2016 Republican shift. Biden was introduced by a soybean farmer who voted for Trump but has since spoken out about tariffs hurting his family business.

Biden stood in front of a rack of pipes at the Plumbers Local Union No. 27 as he touted his economic plan and his working-class Pennsylvania roots.

“The president can only see the world from Park Avenue,” Biden said, repeating a common theme of his campaign. “I see it from Scranton. … You all know what I’m talking about. You all see it from Erie.”

Biden continues to hold a steady and sizable lead over Trump in polls of Pennsylvania voters. His trip to Erie came on the heels of recent visits to Westmoreland and Cambria Counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Taken together, they are clear attempts to win back the kind of white working-class voters who swung strongly to Trump.

Erie was one of the most glaring examples. A county that mixes the city of Erie with battleground suburbs and deeply conservative rural areas — much like the state overall — it was long tied to the Democratic Party through the power of labor unions who worked the county’s many manufacturing sites. Obama won the county by almost 20,000 votes in 2012.

But after decades of job losses and manufacturing declines, the county moved sharply to Trump, and he won a narrow 2,000-vote victory. It was one of the biggest vote swings in a state he won by just 44,000 votes, or 0.7%.

Both parties are furiously contesting the county this year.

» READ MORE: Fact-checking Trump’s frequent claim that Joe Biden ‘abandoned Scranton’

It’s “five times” the excitement even compared with 2016, said Verel Salmon, chairman of the county Republican Party. “We’re up to around 10,000 lawn signs, not counting yard signs, not counting hundreds of Trump flags.”

They’re evident all around the county. But so are Biden signs and flags. After being overshadowed in 2016, the local Democratic Party has made a push to be far more visible and active. In Western Pennsylvania, Erie is one of the few areas where Biden-Harris signs compete with Trump banners for attention.

The county party has opened offices even in conservative rural parts of the county, where “Farmers for Biden” signs on barns contend with those reading “Farmers for Trump.”

The signs don’t count for votes, but they do signal to Democrats that they’re not alone, said Jim Wertz, the county’s Democratic chair.

“Especially after ’16, when it was hard for people to show their Democratic pride, they didn’t have access to the signs to put in the ground," Wertz said. “So people felt really alone.”