READING, Pa. — Vice President Mike Pence returned to the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania on Saturday, declaring President Donald Trump a champion of the “forgotten men and women of America” and blasting Joe Biden as a “Trojan Horse for the radical left.”
“The road to victory runs right through Pennsylvania,” Pence told more than 1,000 supporters here after bounding down the stairs from Air Force Two and running toward the stage outside an airport hangar.
Pence ran through a familiar recitation of the administration’s accomplishments on the economy, cutting regulations, and increasing military spending. “We created the greatest economy in history,” Pence said, despite growing indicators that the rebound from the economic devastation of the pandemic earlier this year is slowing.
“Joe Biden, he’s been a cheerleader for communist China,” Pence said, leading some supporters to shout out, “Lock him up!”
Pence credited Trump for “unleashing American energy,” and having “ended the war on coal,” in a state where coal and natural gas drilling hold outsized importance in the political culture — if not necessarily in most voters’ priorities.
“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want to abolish fossil fuels, end fracking, and destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs right here in the Keystone State,” Pence said, about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Jobs in the coal industry have not actually rebounded as Trump promised. Biden has repeatedly said he would not ban fracking, only that he would halt new leases for drilling on federal lands.
Just over two weeks before Election Day, Trump trails Biden in national polls and across most swing states including Pennsylvania, with a majority of voters disapproving of the president’s job performance and handling of the coronavirus pandemic. And surveys show that a far smaller number of voters remain undecided than at this point in 2016, leaving little room for Trump to rebound.
The vice president’s appearance capped a busy week of campaigning in Pennsylvania, which both parties and analysts see as likely to determine who wins the White House. In addition to Trump’s rally in Johnstown on Tuesday, Biden was in Philadelphia on Thursday for a televised ABC News town hall.
Other supporters of the candidates descended on the state Saturday, with Trump’s son Eric campaigning outside Scranton, and Doug Emhoff, the husband of Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, in Philadelphia. Sen. Cory Booker, D.-N.J., will campaign for Biden in Philadelphia on Sunday.
Pence will return to Pennsylvania again on Monday with an airport rally near Harrisburg. Trump will rally supporters in Erie on Tuesday. And former President Barack Obama will campaign for Biden on Wednesday in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania reported 1,566 new coronavirus cases on Friday. For the last week, the state has reported an average of more than 1,400 cases a day — the highest seven-day average since April. Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said Thursday that Pennsylvania, like much of the country, appeared to be at “the start of the fall resurgence” of the pandemic.
Trump, during a campaign stop in Johnstown this week, told supporters that his own battle with COVID-19 helped him better understand the pain experienced by those who have suffered from the disease.
“I feel your pain because I felt your pain,” he said Tuesday, during his first appearance in the state since he was hospitalized with the virus.
But his continued defiance of public health guidelines — holding big rallies where thousands of supporters pack closely together, many without wearing masks — may make it harder to convince voters he’s changed course on managing a pandemic that has dominated American life since March and killed almost 220,000 people in this country.
About an hour before Pence was scheduled to arrive, supporters at Reading Regional Airport cheered at the site of a bald eagle flying overhead.
“Now we know it’s a blessed day,” U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa., said. He warmed up the crowd by saying Trump deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his Middle East peace deals, attacked the “China virus,” and went after social media platforms for initially restricting a news article about Biden’s son Hunter.
Greg Boyer, 54, a steelworker from Reading, said he felt censored by Facebook. The platform has locked his account five times in the last three months, he said, because he “spoke the truth.”
Boyer said he was a Democrat for 25 years until Obama was elected. “The blue-collar working man that had good health insurance lost all that,” he said. Trump, Boyer said, “has to get in or we’re in trouble. He’s protecting our borders. He’s trying to put religion back into our society.”
Thomas Mounce, 56, a machine operator, said Trump’s corporate tax cut had saved his job. “He did save some jobs around Boyertown,” said Mounce, of nearby Birdsboro. His wife, Eileen, added: “I support Trump. I know I’m better off financially over the last four years than I was eight years with Obama and Biden.”
Trump won Berks County, where Reading is located, by 10 percentage points in 2016, four years after Obama lost the county by 1 point. Pence’s visit offered the Trump campaign a chance to reach out to Latino voters. While a majority of Latino voters back Biden, according to polls, some Democrats have warned that support may be soft. About two-thirds of the population in Reading is Latino, according to census data.
“The people of Reading won’t fall for empty gestures like a last minute drop-in from Vice President Pence,” Reading Mayor Eddie Moran said in a statement Saturday released by the Biden campaign. “Instead of containing the spread of COVID-19 and creating jobs in our region, the Trump-Pence Administration misled the American people about the severity of the pandemic and are now trying to strip health care protections away from Pennsylvanians when they need it most, including over 5 million Pennsylvanians with pre-existing conditions.”
Pence promised Saturday that Trump would restore a booming economy with a “great American comeback” and stands by law enforcement. He defended Trump’s record on the pandemic, saying the president saved “countless American lives” by restricting travel from China.
And Pence said Trump would defend religious freedom.
“People of faith have no greater champion than President Donald Trump,” he said.
The vice president celebrated Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. And he assailed Biden anew over the Democratic nominee’s refusal thus far to take a position on whether he would support adding more justices to the Supreme Court. Republicans have seized on Biden’s hesitation on the issue at a moment when they are rushing to place Barrett on the court just days before the election.
“Well c’mon, man!” Pence said. “The American people deserve a straight answer, Joe.”
Kim Herring, 58, a frontline health-care worker at a hospital, said Trump had “taken all the steps to ensure our safety” during the pandemic. Herring, of Hamburg in Berks County, credited Trump with “working hard to get a vaccine” and for advances in therapeutics.
“I think that he loves America,” she said, “loves our military, and only wants the best for our country.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer