By Steve Holland
LITITZ, Pa. (Reuters) – With eight days to go until the U.S. election, President Donald Trump on Monday wooed voters in Pennsylvania, a battleground state he won in 2016 that is crucial to his chances of defeating Democratic challenger Joe Biden and winning a second term.
“We win Pennsylvania, we win the whole thing,” the Republican president told cheering supporters in Allentown – the first of three stops in the state – as he predicted victory there despite trailing Biden in many opinion polls.
More than 60 million Americans already have cast ballots ahead of the Nov. 3 election, a record-breaking pace that could lead to the highest U.S. voter turnout by percentage in more than a century.
Surging coronavirus cases in many parts of the country have dominated the campaign, along with news of a COVID-19 outbreak within Vice President Mike Pence’s staff. Pence, due in Minnesota, tested negative for the coronavirus on Monday, his office said, after multiple senior aides tested positive over the weekend.
Despite Biden’s solid lead in national opinion polls, the contest appears tighter in the most critical battleground states that could decide the outcome. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted from Oct. 20-26 gives Biden a narrow advantage over Trump in Pennsylvania.
A state where voters can swing toward either major party, Pennsylvania has been heavily courted with frequent visits by both candidates. Trump went from Allentown to Lititz and then was due to head to Martinsburg. Trump also planned multiple stops in Michigan and Wisconsin this week, as well as visits to Arizona, Nebraska and Nevada.
Biden, born in Pennsylvania, has made a victory in the state a critical part of his strategy. Trump told reporters he expects to win Pennsylvania by a larger margin than the narrow one he achieved in defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
‘BIG SURPRISE,’ TRUMP SAYS
In Lititz, Trump promised “a big, big surprise coming, just like four years ago,” alluding to his 2016 upset win.
Addressing supporters, Trump touched on what he called “an existential” issue for Pennsylvania, Biden’s comment during last week’s presidential debate that if elected he would “transition” the United States away from oil and natural gas.
“He wants to go with windmills that are made in Germany and China,” Trump said, adding, “Biden’s plan is an economic death sentence for Pennsylvania’s energy sector.”
Biden said the country should eventually replace oil with solar, wind and other forms of non-polluting power, adding that his plan for a more climate-friendly economy would create high-paying jobs and boost U.S. businesses.
He was expected to remain in his home state of Delaware on Monday and scheduled to travel to Georgia on Tuesday, with stops in Atlanta and Warm Springs, and Florida on Thursday, with stops in Broward County and Tampa.
Biden will be aided in Florida with an appearance in Orlando on Tuesday by former President Barack Obama, under whom he served as vice president.
Record numbers of new U.S. COVID-19 cases in recent days have offered Biden’s campaign a chance to remind voters of how Trump and his allies have played down the advice of public health experts to wear masks and observe social-distancing guidelines to battle the pandemic.
Biden on Sunday accused Trump of surrendering to the virus that has killed about 225,000 people in the United States.
Trump lashed out at Biden on Monday, calling him “a pathetic candidate” while again asserting that his administration was “doing a great job” against the pandemic and saying again that the United States was “absolutely rounding the corner.”
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said on Sunday that the administration was “not going to control the pandemic,” and was instead focused on vaccines and therapeutics.
Trump on Monday disagreed with Meadows, saying he had not given up trying to control the pandemic – “absolutely the opposite” – and accused the news media of focusing on the public health crisis to hurt him politically.
As he has with other Democratic state governors, Trump assailed Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf as a “clown” for policies aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
Trump in Lititz criticized international trade entities and complained about economic powerhouse China’s status as a developing nation under World Trade Organization rules. “We want to be a developing nation also,” Trump said.
Trump also won cheers from supporters when he touted his nomination of conservative appellate judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court “to defend our God-given freedoms.”
The Republican-led Senate was expected to confirm Barrett to the lifetime job later in the day, with the White House planning a celebration on Monday evening. A similar Sept. 26 event when Trump named Barrett as his nominee has been linked to a COVID-19 outbreak at the White House.
(Reporting by Michael Martina and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal, Daphne Psaledakis and Ernest Scheyder; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Cynthia Osterman and Howard Goller)