The tone of the debate was different, but the appeal to Pennsylvania voters was still there.
President Donald J. Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden met on the presidential debate stage Thursday night for the final time this election cycle. It wasn’t a fiery shouting match like the first debate, which seemed to give more time for Pennsylvania voters to hear the candidates discuss issues that matter to them.
Coronavirus in Pa.
Trump didn’t mention Gov. Tom Wolf by name, but he criticized Democratic governors and called out Pennsylvania as one of the states “dying” in ongoing shutdowns. After talking about Pennsylvania and Michigan, he said, “It’s been like a prison. Now, it was just ruled unconstitutional.”
That was likely a reference to a Trump-appointed federal judge last month ruling that some of Wolf’s restrictions, particularly outdoor and indoor gathering limits, are unconstitutional.
The Wolf administration is appealing the decision and has been granted a stay during the appeal.
Trump in the first debate also took aim at Wolf. He accused the governor of playing politics and keeping the state closed until after the Nov. 3 election. He compared it to prison during the first debate as well.
“When you look at North Carolina, when you look, and these governors are under siege, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and a couple of others, you got to open these states up,” Trump said in the first debate. “It’s not fair. You’re talking about almost it’s like being in prison.”
Wolf has never said he was keeping the state shut down until after the election. He closed the state in March, county by county or region by region, based on infection rates. For example, when cases emerged in the suburban Philadelphia counties, those areas faced restrictions and closures first.
Always a battleground:Is Pennsylvania the most important swing state in the 2020 election?
Men for Trump vs. women for Biden:Which voting group could swing Pennsylvania?
The governor was also quick to close schools in March — a decision that appears to have lowered the rate of infection.
Data shows that when cases were rising in early spring and again during a summer spike, the infection rates started to come down after mitigation efforts were put in place.
More than 30,000 new positive cases and more than 400 deaths have accumulated in Pennsylvania since the first presidential debate, which was less than a month ago. To date, the state has more than 188,000 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 and more than 8,500 deaths.
Most schools have reopened on a hybrid model, many people are still working from home, and restaurants last week were allowed to increase to 50 percent capacity.
As the candidates debated last night, Pennsylvania was in a fall surge of coronavirus cases. State officials have warned of a “twindemic,” in which COVID-19 outbreaks could occur simultaneously with the seasonal flu.
Biden, who predicted “a dark winter” ahead, last night said he would have standards in place to open safely, such as using restrictions in gyms and restaurants only when the infection rate reaches a certain threshold. That’s mostly how Democratic governors are handling it now and is in line with recommendations from infectious disease experts at the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country,” Biden said. “It’s his ineptitude that caused the country to have to shut down in large part, why businesses have gone under, why schools are closed, why so many people have lost their living, and why they’re concerned.”
During the 2016 campaign, Trump focused his energy policy on bringing back coal and steel.
This year, he has tried to draw a contrast with Biden on fracking.
Trump during the debate Thursday night asked Pennsylvanians to remember that Biden said he would “ban fracking” and that he’s “going to destroy the oil industry.”
Biden said Trump was taking everything “out of context” and said he would only prohibit fracking on federal land and would, over time, cap emissions from fracking and gas.
During a Pittsburgh campaign stop in September, Biden said he would not ban fracking.
In a July 2019 Democratic primary debate, Biden was asked if fossil fuels would have a place in his administration, and he had a different response.
“No, we would work it out,” Biden said. “We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those, either — any fossil fuel.”
Fracking in Pa.:Here’s what we know about this hot campaign issue
No president can issue a nationwide ban on fracking without congressional approval.
Trump has used this contrast with Biden to try to win voters in southwestern and northern Pennsylvania — two areas of the state with the highest concentration of fracking.
The oil and gas industry is regional in Pennsylvania. There are areas where fracking takes place and areas where pipelines are built to carry the products to market. But despite local and regional debates during the last 10 years, it has never caught on as a top statewide issue.
For example, in state polls during the last four years, fracking has never been among the top concerns or issues of voters who were surveyed.
The top issues in this election are the coronavirus, economy and healthcare.
But fracking in Pennsylvania has had a platform in both presidential debates, the lone vice presidential debate and nearly all of the campaign stops with Trump and his surrogates.
Fracking may not resonate with voters statewide in Pennsylvania, but it could help Trump with voters in the blue-collar corners that helped him win four years ago.
Biden tried to draw on his northeastern Pennsylvania roots again during the final presidential debate.
After a squabble about taxes and China, Biden said, “There’s a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarkey. There’s a reason for it. He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues.”
Biden said the substantive issues are middle-class families who have to decide now if they can afford new tires or have to wait a month, whether they can pay their mortgage or afford college.
“The middle-class families like I grew up in Scranton and Claymont, they’re in trouble,” Biden said of his hometowns in Pennsylvania and Delaware, respectively. “We should be talking about your families, but that’s the last thing he wants to talk about.”
Biden brought up his hometowns again when he criticized the president on caring too much about the stock market and not enough about American families.
“Look, the idea that the stock market is booming is his only measure of what’s happening,” Biden said. “Where I come from in Scranton and Claymont, the people don’t live off of the stock market… What happens to the ordinary people out there?”
Trump responded by saying “401(k)s are through the roof” and accused Biden of exaggerating his Scranton roots.
“He doesn’t come from Scranton,” Trump said. “He lived there for a short period of time before he even knew it. And he left. And the people of Pennsylvania will show you that.”
Biden moved from Scranton to Claymont when he was 10 years old, but he continued to visit Scranton on the weekends for several years to visit family and friends, according to a recent USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capitol Bureau report. During Biden’s nearly 50 years in public office as a senator, vice president and candidate, he has visited Scranton numerous times, both personally and professionally.
As the general election is a little more than a week away, Trump and Biden are increasing their rhetoric and campaign visits to Pennsylvania, where they’ve already been more than any other battleground state.
They are vying for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, which some analysts say could decide the presidential race.
As of Thursday morning, Biden has a 5-point lead in Pennsylvania, which is within the margin of error in nearly every poll and further reinforces how the state really is a battleground.
Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.