Biden returns to Pennsylvania to boost Fetterman, other Dems

If a president’s most precious commodity is time, there is no place more valuable politically for the White House this midterm year than Pennsylvania.

The White House has showered attention on the Keystone State — Biden’s birthplace — in the final run-up to Nov. 8, with the president returning Friday for his 15th visit since he took office and officials preparing for another visit next week.

The open Senate seat in the commonwealth has for months been the most likely pick-up opportunity for Democrats in the evenly-divided Senate, but as prospects darken for Democratic incumbents elsewhere, a win in Pennsylvania is becoming an even more urgent insurance policy for the party to cling to Senate control.

Biden’s latest attempt to prop up Democratic nominee John Fetterman will be at a fundraising dinner for the state Democratic Party, where he’ll speak along with Vice President Kamala Harris, top party officials and the leading candidates on the midterm ballot in this presidential battleground state.

It comes three days after Fetterman — recovering from a stroke earlier this year that he says nearly killed him — had a shaky performance in his sole debate against Republican Mehmet Oz. Biden’s appearance at the dinner Friday will be a chance to buck up Democrats anxious after Fetterman’s uneven showing.

Biden viewed parts of the Tuesday night debate and “thought Lt. Governor John Fetterman did great,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in an e-mail Friday.

The dinner, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center is the state party’s biggest fundraiser of the year. Attendees will include Gov. Tom Wolf, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the party’s nominee for governor, and Fetterman. Also expected is U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, for whom Biden headlined a virtual fundraiser earlier this week.

In his remarks, Biden will continue to sharpen his line of attack against congressional Republicans, focusing on the GOP’s “mega MAGA trickle down plan to raise prescription drug costs, cut Medicare and Social Security, and double down on Trump’s massive tax cuts for the rich,” according to a Democratic official who previewed the message on condition of anonymity.

In the race for governor, Shapiro has smashed state campaign spending records and led polls over Republican nominee Doug Mastriano, a far-right candidate who has alienated moderate Republicans and GOP donors.

In the Senate race, polls show a close race between Fetterman and Oz. The Democrat’s debate performance shocked some viewers and sowed concerns among party leaders. A day later, he delivered a smooth 13-minute stump speech in Pittsburgh as his campaign tried to downplay Tuesday’s performance, saying Fetterman has always been lousy at debates and that the closed-captioning system he used as an aid was faulty.

The White House stressed again this week that Biden – through his personal conversations with the lieutenant governor – believes Fetterman is physically capable to serve in public office, and cited analyses from independent medical experts who have said his halting speech did not indicate an issue with his cognitive functions.

In the meantime, Fetterman’s campaign and national Democratic groups are directing attention elsewhere and pouring money into TV ads with a debate clip of Oz in which he says “I want women, doctors, local political leaders” to decide the fate of a woman’s right to an abortion.

The statement — which spread rapidly across social media immediately after the debate — was meant to frame Oz’s opposition to a federal ban that would pare back abortion access in Pennsylvania, even though he opposes abortion. But Democrats say it’s proof that Oz wants politicians in doctors’ offices and exam rooms with women.

From his political account, Biden tweeted following the debate: “If Dr. Oz gets his way, where does this end? Would he recommend local officials make decisions about cancer treatments? Colonoscopies? Or is this kind of scrutiny reserved just for women?” Meanwhile, a Democratic group, the Senate Majority PAC, will run a TV ad on Oz’s “local political leaders” comment during Friday’s World Series opening game with the Philadelphia Phillies, a spokesperson said.

There are signs that Democrats’ initial nervousness immediately after the debate could be calming down. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was captured on a live microphone Thursday as he greeted Biden in New York, telling the president that “it looks like the debate didn’t hurt us too much in Pennsylvania as of today, so that’s good.”

Biden’s approval ratings are sagging in Pennsylvania similarly to the rest of the nation, begging the question of whether his presence is good for Democrats in a year when Republicans have political winds at their back.

But Biden won heavily in 2020 in Philadelphia and its four suburban “collar” counties — including winning over Republican moderates — and that boosted him to victory over former President Donald Trump.

The Democratic president likely remains popular there.

Pennsylvania’s state Democratic Party chair, Sharif Street, noted that Biden has numerous close ties to Pennsylvania and that he energizes the party’s base, including people of color, and Harris reminds people of the difference between the parties when it comes to a “Republican Party that wants to take away women’s rights.”

“I think that they help energize the base and they remind people just how important this election is,” Street said in an interview.

Democratic political strategist Mark Nevins said that energizing voters in Philadelphia and its heavily populated suburbs — home to one in three registered Pennsylvania voters — “is a cornerstone to a Democratic win in Pennsylvania in the Senate race and in the governor’s race, and frankly in some of these suburban races as well.”

Even if there is some debate about whether Biden can help on the campaign trail, “the one area that’s a constant is his ability to help raise funds. Presidents can help there. There’s no debate that they’ll take the help of a president in fundraising in these very costly races,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Biden also has treated Pennsylvania as something of a home base.

It’s where he spent part of his childhood, it’s where he’s campaigned countless times for himself and other Democrats and it’s where Democrats called him “Pennsylvania’s third senator” during his 36 years in the Senate from next door in Delaware.

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Kim reported from Wilmington, Delaware.

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