WAYNESBURG, Pa. — For more than an hour, union leaders rallied support Sunday for Democrat Conor Lamb in his special congressional race against Republican Rick Saccone without mentioning President Trump a single time.
Mr. Trump struck a different note less than 24 hours earlier when he appeared at a rally that was ostensibly for Mr. Saccone, but it largely served as a chance for the president to tout what he sees as his biggest accomplishments and tell voters that the race is a referendum on him and his “America first” agenda.
“Lamb the Sham, he is trying to act like a Republican,” Mr. Trump said of the Democrat. “He won’t give me one vote.”
The closest thing to a mention of Mr. Trump at the Lamb event Sunday came when a labor official alluded to how the president spent most of his time the previous evening talking about himself instead of Mr. Saccone.
The approach is part of a broader strategy deployed by Mr. Lamb and his allies to tap into the liberal rage against Mr. Trump without alienating voters — including registered Democrats who feel abandoned by the national party — that helped Mr. Trump carry the district by almost 20 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Mr. Saccone, meanwhile, has clung to Mr. Trump, running as “Trump before Trump was Trump,” betting that allegiance to the president, who remains popular in western Pennsylvania, will pay off.
“There is no one I would rather have in my corner than President Trump,” he said. “The president’s support is key to attaining victory on March 13.”
Mr. Saccone is scheduled to campaign Monday with Donald Trump Jr.
The 18th District’s voters, including a pool of about 80,000 union members, will have the final say Tuesday. The winner will fill the seat left open last year when Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican, resigned over accusations related to an extramarital affair.
The dueling efforts to highlight Mr. Trump and marginalize his impact on the race characterized the final weekend of campaigning.
Union leaders and local officials extolled the virtues of Mr. Lamb, saying the former Marine and federal prosecutor will be a pro-labor warrior for the working class, while they steered clear of the commander in chief.
“He’s a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-protecting, Social Security-believing, health-care-creating and sending drug dealers to jail Democrat,” bellowed Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers.
“He believes in us folks from the coal towns,” Mr. Roberts said. “He believes in us folks from the steel towns. He believes in us folks from the small towns and he believes just like us. And we are going to elect somebody that believes and thinks and does things just like us on Tuesday.”
At the rally the night before, Mr. Saccone praised Mr. Trump.
“The Trump administration’s bold agenda is delivering results right here in western Pennsylvania,” Mr. Saccone said.
Mr. Trump told the thousands in attendance that the stakes were high and that Mr. Saccone was on his side.
“The world is watching,” Mr. Trump said. “I hate to put this pressure on you, Rick, but the world is watching because I won this district.”
Polls and political insiders say the race is tight.
It has left national Republicans and their allies on edge and frustrated with Mr. Saccone, who they say has been outclassed by Mr. Lamb in a district that has been a Republican stronghold.
Both parties are hoping to emerge with bragging rights as they prepare for the midterm elections. Political handicappers say Democrats are within striking distance of capturing the 24 seats they need to take over the U.S. House.
Mr. Trump threw a wrinkle into the race last week when he slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, ignoring the concerns of economists and members of both parties who said his desire to deliver on a campaign promise to help one industry would do more harm than good, hurting workers and industries that depend on cheap steel.
“Steel is back,” Mr. Trump boasted Saturday.
Despite the criticism, the move has been welcome news here, including among the union leaders backing Mr. Lamb, who also supports the move. They say the crackdown on Chinese imports is long overdue, but it won’t change the contours of the race.
“This is a race between Conor Lamb and Rick Saccone,” said Darrin Kelly, president of Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council. “It is not between Conor Lamb and Donald Trump. It never has been.”
The Lamb camp has stuck with the same message.
The walls of the Democrat’s campaign office, for example, are adorned with makeshift signs featuring the reasons volunteers are devoted to helping him win.
The motivations range from the mundane (“I ran into Conor at the grocery store, and it seemed like a sign”) to the familial (“For my grandkids”) and the politically charged (“To save the planet for ALL people, not just old white rich guys”).
Noticeably missing is perhaps the world’s most famous old white rich guy: Mr. Trump.
That approach has paid off with the likes of Robert McFann, a retired member of the UMW who worked in a coal mine for 30 years, voted for and still supports Mr. Trump, but plans to cast his vote for Mr. Lamb.
“He is not exactly creating a smear campaign like his opponent is, and if somebody is doing that, there seems to be they might have something to hide,” the 66-year-old miner said, adding that he thinks Mr. Trump and Mr. Lamb are cut from a similar cloth.
“We need someone like Conor, and we need somebody like Trump to fight the establishment, which has gone too far,” he said.
Stanley Jones, a registered Democrat who backed Mr. Trump, said he is pleased with Mr. Trump but is leaning toward voting for Mr. Lamb, citing Mr. Saccone’s support for right-to-work laws that limit union power.
“To me, if it wasn’t for the union fighting for health benefits, wages, so on and so forth, we all would still be making pennies on the dollar and living in coal camps and steel mill camps,” said Mr. Jones, 64. “Unions brought us out of that.”
Importance of Trump
Volunteers and supporters, meanwhile, say Mr. Trump looms over the race.
“I think Trump definitely has an influence on this race,” said Monica Lee Morrill, a married mother of two. “I did speak with one household on the phone, and the lady said, ‘Me, my husband and my daughter, we are all voting for Rick Saccone, we’re Trump supporters.’
“So I think there is an identity that is shared with Trump and Rick Saccone,” Mrs. Morrill said.
Sharon Wicobroda, 57, said the Trump connection is helping galvanize support for Mr. Saccone.
“Trump can only win if he’s got supporters, so [Mr. Saccone] needs all the help he can get,” Ms. Wicobroda said.
The Trump connection had the opposite effect on Allen Bashaar, a Republican who has been going door to door on behalf of Mr. Lamb.
“The thing that did me in with Saccone is when he came out and said, ‘I was Trump before Trump was Trump.’” Mr. Bashaar, 69, said. “I am sorry, I almost threw up on the sidewalk on that one.”
His wife, Kathryn, said the backlash against Mr. Trump is evident.
“There is enthusiasm for Conor Lamb that I did not see for Hillary or even for Obama in 2012,” Mrs. Bashaar, 62, said of her canvassing experiences.
Mr. Lamb refused to take the bait Sunday when a reporter asked him how he could work with Mr. Trump if elected given the way the president has gone all in against him.
“You all have a nice day,” he said before leaving the event.