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Trump, Biden and the battle for Pennsylvania

‘Biden deserted you,‘ president roars in Montoursville rally, as former veep sets up shop in Philly

Former Vice President Joe Biden removes his jacket at the Eakins Oval in Philadelphia on Saturday as he formally kicks off his 2020 White House bid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former Vice President Joe Biden removes his jacket at the Eakins Oval in Philadelphia on Saturday as he formally kicks off his 2020 White House bid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Three times President Donald Trump mentioned former Vice President and Pennsylvania native Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic front-runner, and three times his crowd of loyalists booed at a rally Monday night in Lycoming County. But it is swing voter-rich places, like the one here in Lehigh County, two hours to the southeast, that will help determine who is president in January 2021.

Biden clearly has attracted the president’s attention since he jumped into his party’s race to take on Trump in the general election.

He’s also on the minds of conservative media outlets and Trump supporters in the north-central part of the state, where the president on Monday made his sixth Pennsylvania appearance since taking office.

He admitted during the rally he plans to be back in the Keystone State “a lot” because he knows that to win a second term, he has “got to win this state.” And if Biden tops the Democratic ticket, that could be quite a task: Not only was he born in Scranton, not only did he win it twice as a vice presidential candidate, but he also represented neighboring Delaware as a senator from 1973 to 2009.

Former President Barack Obama’s No. 2 is so on Trump’s mind that he insisted on keeping his supporters around a few more minutes on Monday night. He worked in a few attack lines that he forgot to drop earlier as the campaign event neared its end under twilight skies.

“Don’t forget, Biden deserted you. He’s not from Pennsylvania. I guess he was born here but he left you, folks. He left you for another state,” Trump said, referring to the Biden family’s move in the early 1950s to Delaware. “Remember that, please. I meant to say that.”

[‘I’ll be here a lot,’ Trump says of Pennsylvania in safe GOP district]

“This guy talks about ‘I know Scranton.’ … He left you for another state and he didn’t take care of you because he didn’t take care of your jobs. He let other countries come in and rip off America. That doesn’t happen anymore,” Trump said.

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‘A sacrifice for our nation’

Biden acknowledges he left the state as a child, saying at a rally in Philadelphia on Saturday to kick off his campaign: “To paraphrase the poet James Joyce, I have to say this, folks, because I’m near my state: When I die, ‘Delaware’ will be written on my heart.”

The president’s supporters here and in GOP-friendly Lycoming County frequently state that jobs have returned during Trump’s time in office. They shrug off questions about Trump’s revised trade pact with Mexico and Canada, or his administration’s trade war with China, which even state GOP officials warn is hurting Pennsylvania via Beijing’s retaliatory tariffs.

“If I have to pay a little more as a result of him being tough with them, then so be it. It’s a sacrifice for our nation,” said Daryl Bucknor before the president arrived Monday evening.

For his part, Biden has said that Trump is right to try to compel Chinese officials to alter what Republicans and Democrats have long called unfair trade practices. He just thinks there is a better way to do it. 

“Folks, the greatest challenges we face in the future will be over technology, intellectual property, clean energy, a warming planet. There’s not a single thing that building a wall or imposing another tariff can address on any of these issues,” Biden said at his Saturday rally.

“Folks, we need a 21st-century strategy for America. But every tool that Donald Trump uses is out of the past,” he added.

Trump and his supporters are mindful of recent polls, like one released May 15 by Quinnipiac University giving Biden a clear lead over the president in Pennsylvania. Trump won the state by less than a point in 2016.

Voters interviewed here acknowledged that how their county breaks in November 2020 could decide whether Trump or the Democratic nominee wins the Keystone State, and perhaps the presidency.

So does Biden, who not only held his formal campaign kickoff event in Philadelphia, but is setting up his campaign headquarters in the City of Brotherly Love — about 30 miles from his home in Wilmington, Delaware.

‘OK with Biden’?

The reaction among some to Biden in Lehigh County — a racially and politically diverse place — is tinged with a feeling that Biden could take down Trump. It does, though, come with some concerns about Biden as a candidate.

In 2008, Obama won the county with 57 percent to Sen. John McCain’s 42 percent. Four years later, Obama took Lehigh over now-Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, 53 percent to 45 percent. And in the last election, Clinton narrowly beat Trump by 5 points, 51 percent to 46 percent.

“He’s a local guy. And even though he’s from Delaware now, we tend to trust those folks,” Richard Warmkessel, who identified as a non-Trump supporter, said as he paused during his lunch break on a breezy day downtown here. “They’re very level-headed people over there.”

Angela McCoun, also not a Trump fan, said she once “was a huge supporter of Joe Biden.”

But then came accusations by women who said Biden touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable, such as Lucy Flores, a former Nevada assemblywoman and onetime candidate for lieutenant governor. Biden addressed the issue by shooting a video segment that said he would be “more mindful” of personal space.

“I just don’t think we need another person running or elected who has been accused of something like that with women,” said McCoun, describing herself as “open to looking at the other Democrats.”

[In Pennsylvania’s Trump country, relief that he’s restoring ‘the old ways’]

Jesse Kuwabara said he voted for the president in 2016, adding that voting for Clinton was, for him, “a hard no.” Sitting outside a coffee shop here, he explained he supports Trump’s pro-gun stance, handling of the economy and attempts to crack down on illegal immigration.

Asked how he is leaning as the 2020 race heats up, Kuwabara said he likely will stick with the New York real estate mogul and former reality television host “unless something drastic changes and the Democrats somehow get their act together and don’t just put up someone who’s a regurgitation of what they’ve had for the last 20 years.”

Among the nearly two dozen Democrats in the race, he said he likes “the idea of Beto,” referring former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke. “But he leaves things too wide open on immigration,” Kuwabara added. “People should be able to come here — just do it legally.”

He said he is “OK with Biden,” calling the longtime former senator “a likable person.” But he’s still leaning Trump if it comes down to the sons of Queens, New York, and Scranton. “Being pro-life is a really big thing for me,” Kuwabara said. “So, unless Biden flips on that, it would probably be Trump again.”

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