The fight for Pennsylvania roared back with new intensity Thursday as Vice President Mike Pence and former Vice President Joe Biden made simultaneous visits to the state, each trying to show who can best handle the crises wracking the country and defining the 2020 election.
In separate stops throughout the day, they clashed over who could revive the economy, President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and the searing debates over racism and policing playing out in streets across the country.
The day included Biden speaking to a group of ironworkers while Pence met with business leaders, and Biden attacking Trump for defending the Confederate flag, while Pence accused the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and “the radical left” of “smearing” police.
At a factory just outside his birthplace of Scranton, Biden laid out his $700 billion plan for economic recovery in a speech that reached out to the working-class voters vital to winning Pennsylvania and other swing states. And he accused Trump of stoking the very racial divisions that need healing.
“Everyone will be cut in on the deal this time as we rebuild the middle class, this time bringing everyone along, everybody,” Biden said. Trump, he said, is “exactly the wrong person to lead at this moment. He’ll not bring this country together. He’s determined to drive us apart to keep his base in place. He’ll not be president for all the American people.”
Hours later, Pence addressed a crowd of about 300 in Northeast Philadelphia, where supporters at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the city’s police union, wore few face masks but many “Back the Blue” and “Trump 2020″ shirts.
In one of the rare Republican-friendly areas in a heavily Democratic city, small but heated groups of protesters exchanged words outside.
“On behalf of President Trump,” Pence said, “I’ll make you a promise: We will always have your back.” Echoing Trump’s “law and order” message, he called police “the best of us.”
Earlier in Chester County, Pence had touted a “great American comeback” and praised Trump’s handling of the pandemic — despite millions of people still unemployed and daily coronavirus cases reaching new records. Meeting with business leaders at the Rajant Corp. in Malvern, Pence said the United States is “coming back because of the solid foundation that was put in place” by Trump.
The Trump campaign fired back, pointing to Biden’s support for NAFTA, the trade deal many blame for taking their jobs overseas.
The twin visits created one of the first days of split-screen campaigning anywhere since the coronavirus curtailed public events.
Pennsylvania’s narrow 2016 margin — when Trump won by less than 1 percentage point — loomed as a backdrop, with both sides looking for anything that could make the difference in a state that could decide the presidential race.
At McGregor Industries in Dunmore, in northeastern Pennsylvania, Biden visited a region that delivered a shocking blow to Democrats. The area helped deliver Pennsylvania to Trump in a political shift that mirrored postindustrial regions across the upper Midwest, many hit hard by economic change and won over by Trump’s promise of renewal.
But Biden said Trump was “singularly focused” on the stock market and he promised to be a true champion of the working class as he unveiled a recovery plan aimed at boosting investments in American workers, businesses, and infrastructure.
Biden sharply contrasted his approach — and upbringing — with Trump’s, frequently mentioning his ties to Scranton.
“You see, growing up rich and looking down on people is a bit different than how I grew up here,” Biden said. While Trump has touted a nostalgic vision of values and jobs, Biden said his emphasis on clean energy, technology, and research and development is “focused on building an economy for the future, not for the past.”
In a clear sign of where his policy pitch is aimed, top Biden surrogates will follow his Pennsylvania speech with virtual events Friday touting the plan in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio, similarly situated swing states that could also play a pivotal role in the election.
Pence began his visit in an area that delivered one of Trump’s largest 2016 vote hauls, attending a campaign fund-raiser at a sprawling Lancaster County farm for an event that brought in more than $1 million. He then touted the president’s economic record, and the country’s future, while meeting with business leaders in Chester County, one of the many affluent suburbs that once supported the GOP but have broken sharply from Trump.
In Northeast Philadelphia, Pence spoke to a largely white crowd where the Trump campaign believes it can make inroads. Philadelphia police union president John McNesby said Pence had long wanted to come speak to officers involved in last year’s Tioga shooting, when six cops were shot in a standoff. But the visit arrived at a moment of extreme tension around policing.
“Right now, folks, there is no support for police. ... Nobody’s out there giving our guys and girls that are on the street for the last two months ... any help whatsoever,” McNesby said.
The national FOP president, Patrick Yoes, flew in for the event and said that police have become “political footballs” and that “this social experiment is going to cost people’s lives. It’s doing irreparable harm to law enforcement.”
Also there were U.S. Attorney William McSwain and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who each forcefully backed the police. So was Philadelphia Police Inspector Joseph Bologna, who was suspended last month after being charged with assaulting a protester during protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
”A dark cloud of irrational sentiment has descended over much of the country and Philadelphia,” Toomey said. “There is a loud, angry, I think small but very vocal segment of our society, amplified by the mainstream media, propagating a false narrative.”
Eddie Lopez Sr., vice president of the National Coalition of Latino Officers, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but as a 30-year Philadelphia police veteran, he welcomed support from the White House.
”I’ve never been a Trump supporter, but he’s probably the only one right now supporting police, so that’s something I have to look at,” Lopez said. He wasn’t sure what he thought of Biden. “Right now I don’t know who I will support. But I’ll tell you this: You must support police. If you don’t, it’s not going to be a hard decision.”
He was one of fewer than a dozen people of color who attended the event.
Pence argued that the Trump administration has supported Black families — pointing to job gains before the pandemic. But Biden hammered the president’s defense of the Confederate flag.
“You think Donald Trump has any idea that 360,000 Pennsylvanians fought on the side of the Union to defeat the flag, that Confederate flag, including more black soldiers coming from Pennsylvania than any other state in the nation?” Biden said in his Dunmore speech.
But Biden’s main emphasis was on how he would lead an economic recovery, as he attempted to eat into Trump’s advantage on one of the few major issues on which polling shows more voters still trust the president.
Biden said he would reverse the economic crash with investments including $400 billion in government purchases of American products such as clean vehicles, building materials, and medical supplies, and $300 billion for research and development. His proposal would also strengthen labor unions and tighten the government’s “buy American” provisions.