- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey has been a critic of Donald Trump’s and is skipping the Republican National Convention, and it is fueling questions from GOP voters as he hopscotches to meet-and-greets across Pennsylvania in his re-election campaign.

On Wednesday, Toomey addressed a gathering at a Chambersburg-area restaurant where he fielded questions, including whether Toomey’s criticism is hurting the newly minted Republican presidential nominee.

Toomey may not have had the answers his questioners were seeking, but he also downplayed a Republican Party split over Trump.

“I do think the party is moving in the direction of greater unity and is likely to end up there,” Toomey told one questioner, retiree Ray Myers. “That’s where it looks like it’s heading.”

Democrat Katie McGinty is challenging Toomey’s bid for a second term in an expensive and closely watched race that could help tilt control of the U.S. Senate. McGinty has attacked Toomey as an enemy of the middle class and women’s rights in a race that is increasingly turning on debates surrounding gun violence, terrorism, those living in the country illegally and public safety.

In moderate Pennsylvania, Democrats outnumber Republicans four-to-three, meaning Toomey will need significant support from conservative Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans to beat McGinty. But he has another tightrope to walk: Trump nailed down a surprising 37 percentage-point victory in Pennsylvania’s April 26 primary, and Toomey may not be able to afford alienating Trump backers.

Asked by Myers whether his criticism of Trump would hurt the GOP nominee, Toomey said people will vote for Trump based on their own perceptions.

“And how quickly or slowly I get to the point of endorsing him is, I think, not very important,” Toomey said.

Asked by another questioner, Allen Piper, whether it would help his candidacy to endorse Trump, Toomey said he didn’t know.

“Donald Trump is unique, right?” Toomey said. “I mean, there hasn’t been a candidate like him, certainly not in the last 100 years, probably longer than that. So we just don’t know. … I want to stay on the path I’m on, let’s see a little bit more.”

He added, “It’s still only July, we’ve still got a lot of time.”

Toomey pointed out that he is encouraged by Trump’s short list of would-be nominees to fill an open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and his selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, whom Toomey called a “rock solid conservative.”

Toomey also suggested that those moves by Trump were spurred by “the collective reservation from conservatives.”

Still, Toomey repeated his questions about Trump’s commitment to fiscal conservativism - Trump was a Democrat, gave big campaign contributions to Democrats and advocated tax increases and single-payer health care, Toomey said.

In May, Toomey laid out a longer list of concerns in interviews and editorials, including Trump’s vulgarity and his vagueness about what he would do as president - or how.

“So I’ve seen these examples that have given me real pause as to whether he would lead America based on conservative principles or not,” Toomey told another questioner, Michele Jansen. “So I’ve said, ‘let me step back here and see how this develops and see what kinds of specific policies he proposes and how this evolves,’ and of course I’m not the only one.”

Toomey is not alone among endangered Republican senators to skip the convention in Cleveland. Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona and Mark Kirk of Illinois skipped it entirely. Ohio’s Rob Portman was to appear on the convention floor this week, but not speak from the podium, a departure from custom for any host-state senator.

Alternately, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson targeted his Democratic opponent, Russ Feingold, from the convention’s national stage during a prime-time speech Tuesday night.

Toomey maintains that he is not avoiding the convention because of Trump, but he prefers to take the time in Pennsylvania this week to make his case to voters, attend fundraisers and do media interviews.

“I think this is just a much more effective way for me to spend my time if I want to hold this seat, which I do,” Toomey told the restaurant crowd.

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