- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

CLEVELAND | From hard-scrabble Scranton to coal country near Johnstown, voters in Pennsylvania are fired up about Donald Trump, giving GOP delegates from the Keystone State a palpable belief they can notch their first home-state win in a presidential race since 1988.

The GOP nominee’s critique of foreign trade deals is resonating with coal and steel workers who’ve seen jobs fade away, and Republican state delegates here say Mr. Trump brings an edge to the campaign that their last two nominees simply didn’t have.

“I think he’s not going to take a knife to a gunfight,” said Dave Dumeyer, a delegate from the 16th congressional district in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The groundswell has Trump supporters eyeing Pennsylvania as a key bellwether for a Midwest “Rust Belt” strategy that also includes Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin — or a key pickup in case he falters in other battlegrounds.

“It’s an older, whiter, blue-collar state, and Trump has shown strength in lots of those demographics,” said Christopher Borick, a politics professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “I still think Pennsylvania leans Democratic given its major registered-voter advantage for Democrats, but Trump has a pathway to win.”

Registered Democrats in the state still outnumber registered Republicans by 918,000, and GOP presidential contenders haven’t won Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes since George H.W. Bush took the state in 1988.

Mr. Obama won Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points over Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, in 2008, and by 5 points over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney four years later.

Delegates insist that this time feels different.

“Nobody in Pennsylvania wants more of the same,” said Jim Vasilko, a delegate from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, nearly 70 miles east of Pittsburgh, where coal workers are wary of another Democratic president. “We just want family-sustaining jobs and our shot at the American dream. We don’t need handouts.”

Liz Preate Havey, a delegate who grew up in the Scranton area and now lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, is hearing much of the same back home in northeast Pennsylvania. Enthusiasm for Mr. Trump runs so deep that it’s common to see homemade signs in yards and hear some Democrats speak enthusiastically about the mogul.

“It’s a coal town, and it’s been suffering for many years,” she said. “People there have been struggling for far too long, and Trump is giving them hope.”

“They think he’s going to make the economy better and there’s going to be more money in their pockets,” she added.

Political analysts say while Mr. Trump’s appeal may be strong in coal country, he’ll have to turn out Republicans and independents in heavily populated areas around Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley to turn rhetoric into reality.

Trump may outperform Romney in Appalachian Ohio and Pennsylvania, but the challenger is also outperforming him in the vote-rich Republican suburbs in both states,” said Kyle D. Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. “The wealthy ‘collar counties’ around places like Columbus and Philadelphia may be resistant to Trump. If so, his path to victory in both states will be rocky, even assuming improvement in other, less populated areas.”

Many of the latest polls still have Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton leading Mr. Trump by single digits, giving the former secretary of state an average edge of 3.2 percentage points in Real Clear Politics’ latest average.

The Democratic nominee will try to press her advantage during her party’s convention in Philadelphia next week, and analysts say Mr. Trump’s decision to pick Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate may have muddled his message on trade and jobs.

Mr. Pence has sided with the Obama administration on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal opposed by Mr. Trump.

But delegates gathered on the shores of Lake Erie this week say people underestimate Trump fervor at their own peril. The nominee has spoken in support of the Second Amendment, a key for hunters in rural swaths of the state, and delegates say the businessman will be inclined to cut regulations that affect small business owners scattered across the state.

“He is projecting strength, a willingness to deal with these issues in a very clear and direct way. I think that’s connecting,” said former state Rep. Gordon Denlinger, another delegate from Lancaster County. “He’s willing to work with folks — he brought Pence on to demonstrate that — but he’s not owned by the system.”

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