Lou Barletta, darling of the Republican establishment?

That might sound odd. The former congressman was among Donald Trump’s earliest supporters in 2016 — at a time when most national Republicans either didn’t take him seriously or desperately sought to elect anyone else.

But now Barletta is being anointed by some Pennsylvania Republican Party leaders as their last best chance to stop gubernatorial front-runner Doug Mastriano, the state senator from Franklin County who is perhaps even more popular among the ”Make America Great Again” faithful.

That’s the message being conveyed by state Senate leader Jake Corman, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, former Gov. Mark Schweiker, and former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley. All of them endorsed Barletta’s campaign Thursday. Former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, a long-shot candidate for governor, was set to join Barletta for a “major announcement” Friday morning in Harrisburg, signaling that she would likely back him next.

Corman, also a candidate for governor, asked voters Thursday to ignore his name on the ballot and support Barletta instead.

“The amazing thing about Lou’s campaign is he’s consistently been towards the top of the polls in his race, despite spending far less money than other candidates,” Corman said as the two appeared together in Harrisburg. “It shows his popularity. It shows his tenacity.”

The other leading rivals to Mastriano, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain and former Delaware County Councilman Dave White, have their own big-name supporters. But so far it’s Barletta who has gathered the most support from party leaders seeking a single alternative to Mastriano, whom they fear would lose the general election to presumptive Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro.

» READ MORE: A last-ditch GOP effort to stop Doug Mastriano in the Pa. governor’s race appears to be too little, too late

However, at a later event in Bucks County, Barletta refused to directly criticize Mastriano.

“It was very difficult for any one candidate to really pull away,” Barletta said of the field. “But in these final days, no matter who you support, they have to beat Josh Shapiro. And I have the record to do that.”

The former congressman spoke at an American Legion hall to several dozen Republican voters in Levittown, and was flanked by Schweiker and Cawley.

Cawley said Barletta is the GOP’s best bet, pointing to ads Shapiro’s campaign is running that some see as an effort to prop up Mastriano.

“Josh is pretty sure he can beat Doug Mastriano,” Cawley said. “But he’s absolutely confident that he will lose to Lou Barletta. In fact, the truth of the matter is, Lou is the only candidate on the Republican side who can win not only the primary, but also can win the general election.”

Asked if the state party — which did not endorse a candidate — should have put its collective weight behind one candidate sooner, Barletta said, “The party can do what they want.”

“I’ve never been controlled by any power brokers, and I think that’s what a lot of people like about me,” he said. “Those are things that I can’t control, but what I can control is my message to the people.”

Meanwhile, Barletta’s rivals dismissed Corman’s endorsement.

“It should surprise absolutely no one that career politician Jake Corman would endorse career politician Lou Barletta — this is the swamp endorsing the swamp,” Bob Salera, White’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “Both Corman and Barletta have spent more than two decades on the public payroll, racking up massive taxpayer funded pensions along the way.”

Trump says he will endorse a candidate

Also Thursday, Trump declared he will “soon be endorsing” a candidate in the Republican primary for governor.

The former president made that pledge in a post on his fledgling social media site, Truth Social, at the tail end of a rant that started with criticism of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and quickly shifted into the lies he has told about the 2020 election being “rigged and stolen” from him in Pennsylvania.

Trump did not spell out what offense the Wall Street Journal committed. The newspaper ran an editorial Wednesday evening warning about Mastriano as the front-runner in the Republican primary. The headline: “The Mastriano Pileup in the Pennsylvania elections.”

The newspaper also noted that Shapiro, the only Democrat running for governor, started airing television ads last week calling Mastriano “one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters” in an attempt to meddle in the Republican primary.

“Mr. Mastriano doesn’t have the campaign cash to bombard television viewers, so Mr. Shapiro is trying to help him get the nomination,” the Wall Street Journal said. “If Republicans go for it, Tuesday’s primary could be the start of another Trumpian backfire.”

Barletta first drew national attention as mayor of Hazleton in northeastern Pennsylvania. In 2006, he championed an ordinance prohibiting employers from hiring and landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants.

The city faced litigation and the ordinance never took effect, but it elevated Barletta’s profile around the same time that the leader of his party — President George W. Bush — was seeking a bipartisan immigration deal that would have offered legal status to people living in the United States without legal status. The bill failed — as has every other proposed immigration overhaul since then.

But the GOP as a whole didn’t seem to fully embrace a restrictionist immigration platform until Trump’s presidency. Which is another way of saying the party finally came around to Barletta.

With Trump’s support, Barletta easily won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2018. But it was partly because of his 13-point loss to incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in the general election that Barletta couldn’t clear the primary field for governor this year. Instead, nine candidates are on the ballot — the most in a GOP gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania since 1978.

Yet Barletta’s aides have long believed that given his name recognition and popularity with GOP primary voters, he is the only candidate who ever had much of a shot of beating Mastriano.

Barletta said he hasn’t spoken to other candidates about backing him.

“I think each person needs to look at their campaign and where they want to go,” Barletta said. “That’s a personal decision.”