WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Thursday honed the “law and order” message he intends to wield for the next two months against his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, stepping up attacks that his campaign believes are resonating with battleground state voters.
“Biden’s plan is to appease the domestic terrorists and my plan is to arrest them and prosecute them,” Trump declared at a rally in Pennsylvania — a state that flipped in his favor in 2016, helping to pave his road to victory.
The rally comes as Trump's campaign is claiming new signs of momentum, including in the longtime Democratic stronghold that Trump won by less than 45,000 votes in 2016. After months of trepidation, Trump campaign officials have been feeling encouraged in the last few weeks as Trump has responded to mass demonstrations against racial injustice by taking a hardline against protesters and painting Biden as weak.
Trump was speaking in front of a crowd of hundreds packed into an airport hangar, where people stood closely together and few were seen wearing masks, despite the ongoing pandemic, which has now killed more than 185,000 people and infected more that 6 million nationwide.
Pennsylvania currently restricts indoor gatherings to 25 people and outdoor events to 250 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But Trump has been flouting both local restrictions and his own administration’s social distancing guidelines as he insists on campaigning in front of large crowds and tries to project the image that the virus is waning as he pushes to reopen the economy.
Trump told the crowd that he is “all for” wearing masks, and urged them to be careful during the upcoming Labor Day weekend. White House and public health officials have been eyeing the date warily, concerned that it could fuel another spike in cases, like Memorial Day weekend.
“There’s a tendency of people to be careless, somewhat, with regard to the public health measures that we keep recommending over and over again,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told MSNBC Wednesday, pleading for diligence in adhering to safety measures going into the holiday. Fauci is the government’s top infectious disease expert
At the same time, Trump, who has rarely worn a mask, mocked Biden for wearing one so often.
“Did you ever see a man who likes a mask as much as him?” he asked, proclaiming that “it gives him a feeling of security.”
“If I were a psychiatrist, right, you know I’d say, ‘This guy’s got some big issues.’ Hanging down. Hanging down,” he said.
The rally came the same day that Biden paid a visit to Kenosha, Wisconsin, amid turmoil following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times. Trump mocked Biden for visiting two days after he had, claiming: “There was nobody there. He was a little late. I was going to say, ‘Hey listen, we ended that problem.’”
Trump's campaign believes its efforts to paint Biden as weak on crime will help Trump win back suburban voters, and especially women, who supported him in 2016 but have since soured on him.
That includes in Pennsylvania, where they argue the president is in a better position than he was in 2016, citing Democrats’ shrinking voter registration advantage. This time, they believe their get-out-the-vote operation will result in better turnout among working-class rural voters, along with improved margins among African Americans, Latinos and union supporters. At the rally, Trump announced that he had received the endorsement of the Boilermakers Local 154 in Pittsburgh.
To that end, Trump and his team have been paying frequent visits to the state as they work to build enthusiasm. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence held a “Workers for Trump” rally at a construction company less than 15 miles from Biden’s hometown, Scranton.
“I know we’re not too far from our opponent’s boyhood home, but it’s Trump country now,” Pence told the crowd.
Trump himself held a small rally last month outside Scranton just hours before Biden accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. At the event, Trump insisted Biden would be the state’s “worst nightmare” if elected president. The former vice president often spotlights his early years in the northeast Pennsylvania city as evidence of his middle-class upbringing.
“Between the record enthusiasm for this President, our unprecedented ground game, and trends in Republican voter registrations, the Commonwealth, once again, is ready to deliver for President Trump this November,” Nick Trainer, the Trump campaign’s director of battleground strategies, said in a statement.
Biden's campaign remains equally confident about his prospects in the state. They have put considerable emphasis on the Pittsburgh metro area, where Democrats lost ground in 2016 but then watched Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb pull an upset in a special election.
Still, Biden’s path in Pennsylvania is seen as more complicated than winning back Wisconsin and Michigan, the two other “blue wall” states Trump won by less than 1 percentage point four years ago.
In Wisconsin and Michigan, Trump benefited from then-rival Hillary Clinton’s poor performance in the largest, heavily Democratic cities, Milwaukee and Detroit. But Clinton did relatively well in Philadelphia and won more votes that former President Barack Obama in the Philadelphia suburbs, even in defeat. That could put even more pressure on Biden to try to blunt Trump's performance in Pennsylvania’s smaller cities and in rural areas.
Latrobe, the site of Trump’s Thursday rally, is about an hour outside Pittsburgh in Westmoreland County, which Trump won by large margins four years ago.
While Democrats still hold a significant voter registration advantage in the state, the number of new Republican registrations has far outpaced the number of new Democrats registering this cycle. Many political observers believe the state, which has many white, older voters, could become even more favorable to Republicans despite having voted Democratic from 1992 until Trump's win in 2016.
Miller reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.