HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Swing-state Pennsylvania is the stage for a clash of presidents on Saturday as each party’s biggest stars work to energize voters just days before voting concludes in high-stakes midterm elections across the country.
Former President Barack Obama opens the day at a Pittsburgh rally with Democratic Senate hopeful John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor who represents his party’s best chance to flip a Republican-held Senate seat on Tuesday. Obama and Fetterman will appear alongside President Joe Biden and gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro later in the day in Philadelphia.
Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, will finish the day courting voters in a working-class region in the southwestern corner of the state with Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.
The flurry of presidential attention on Pennsylvania underscores the stakes in 2022 and beyond for a presidential battleground state hosting pivotal elections for the U.S. Senate, House and governor on Tuesday. The Senate contest could well decide the Senate majority — and with it, Biden’s agenda and judicial appointments for the next two years. The governor’s race will determine the direction of state policy and control of the state’s election infrastructure ahead of the 2024 presidential contest.
Polls show a close contest between Trump’s preferred Senate candidate, Oz, and Biden’s choice, Fetterman, in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.
In the race for governor, Shapiro, the Democratic state attorney general, leads polls over Mastriano, a state senator and retired Army colonel who some Republicans believe is too extreme to win a general election in a state Biden narrowly carried two years ago.
And while Democrats feel good about the Pennsylvania governor’s race, they enter the weekend decidedly on the defensive nationwide as voters sour on Biden’s leadership amid surging inflation, crime concerns and widespread pessimism about the direction of the country.
History suggests that Democrats, as the party in power, will suffer significant losses on Tuesday.
Obama’s midday appearance in Pittsburgh marks his first time campaigning in Pennsylvania this year, though the former president has been the Democratic Party’s top surrogate in the final sprint to Election Day. Obama campaigned in recent days across Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona before hitting Pennsylvania.
As Biden’s approval numbers sag, the current president has been a far less visible presence in battleground states, though Saturday marks his third appearance in three weeks in his home state of Pennsylvania as he works to buoy Fetterman’s prospects.
The White House has worried privately for weeks that concerns about Fetterman’s health might undermine his candidacy.
Fetterman is still recovering from a stroke he suffered in May. He jumbled words and struggled to complete sentences in his lone debate against Oz last month, although medical experts say he’s recovering well from the health scare.
Despite his challenges, Fetterman has relentlessly attacked Oz over his opposition to abortion rights and castigated the former New Jersey resident as an ultrawealthy carpetbagger who will say or do anything to get elected. Oprah Winfrey, who elevated Oz on her TV show, endorsed Fetterman on Thursday.
Oz, meanwhile, has worked to craft a moderate image in the general election and focused his attacks on Fetterman’s progressive positions on criminal justice and drug decriminalization. Still, Oz has struggled to connect with some voters, including Republican voters who think he’s too close to Trump, too liberal or inauthentic.
Meanwhile, Trump will hold a rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to bolster Oz and Mastriano on Saturday night.
Oz barely won the GOP nomination even after getting Trump’s endorsement. The former Republican president is betting that the celebrity TV doctor, who counts former first lady Melania Trump as a fan, will help Republicans win over suburban women in the crucial swing state.
The event is part of a final rally blitz that will also take Trump to Florida and Ohio ― both critical presidential battleground states. He’s hoping a strong GOP showing this week will generate momentum for the 2024 run that he’s expected to launch in the days or weeks after polls close.
Trump has been increasingly explicit about his plans.
At a rally Thursday night in Iowa, traditionally home of the first contest on the presidential nominating calendar, Trump repeatedly referenced his 2024 White House ambitions.
After talking up his first two presidential runs, he told the crowd: “Now, in order to make our country successful and safe and glorious, I will very, very, very probably do it again, OK? Very, very, very probably. Very, very, very probably.”
“Get ready, that’s all I’m telling you. Very soon,” he said.
The potential dynamics of the race are already spilling out into public view.
On Sunday, Trump will headline a rally in Miami, Florida, to bolster Sen. Marco Rubio, a onetime rival. Not invited: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for reelection and is widely considered Trump’s most formidable challenger if both men decide to run for president.
Trump’s rally schedule underscores both his undeniable popularity with the Republican base and his polarity. His aides acknowledge that Trump is best deployed in races in which candidates are trying to turn out the base.
Republicans in Westmoreland County, where Trump will speak Saturday, hope that the former president will do just that on Saturday.
“The Trump bump is still a real phenomenon,” said Bill Bretz, who chairs the Westmoreland County GOP. “I’m sure that’s what he’s hoping to bring in, to make sure everyone is aware of the significance of those races, give a boost to both men and really drive out that Election Day vote.”
Peoples and Colvin reported from New York.