Republican Paul Ryan on Tuesday made an appeal in Carnegie to middle-class Democrats who could help swing the November presidential election.
The Wisconsin congressman — presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate — walked onstage at Beaver Steel Services, a family-owned manufacturer of steel plates in Rosslyn Farms Industrial Park, clutching a Terrible Towel as a crowd of more than 2,000 supporters chanted: "Here we go Ryan, here we go!"
"We have a very clear choice to make this fall," he said. "We can go down the path we’ve been on — a nation of debt, a nation of doubt and despair — or we can make a change. … We have to get this country on the right track."
He reintroduced one of President Obama’s most polarizing blunders when he reminded the crowd of the president’s remark four years ago that Pennsylvania voters are "clinging to their guns and religion."
"Remember this other time when he said people want to cling to their guns and religion?" Ryan said. "Hey, I’m a Catholic deer hunter, I’m happy to be clinging to my guns and religion."
Before Ryan’s arrival, the Obama campaign held a news conference outside to tout President Obama’s record of creating jobs and supporting manufacturers.
The president’s surrogates, Allegheny County Executive Tom Fitzgerald, Labor Council President Jack Shea and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, said the Romney-Ryan ticket would raise taxes on the middle class and small businesses in order to give wealthy Americans tax breaks.
Ryan countered that the Obama campaign distorts the truth, though he conceded it’s not enough to point out Obama’s failures as a leader.
"We are offering specific solutions to get Americans back to work, bringing over 500,00 jobs in Pennsylvania alone," he said. "One of those solutions lies right here. …We have energy in this country; let’s use it. Coal, oil, gas-fracking, nuclear — all of the above."
Ryan, 42, has visited swing states since Romney tapped him 10 days ago to join the GOP ticket. He plans a second Pennsylvania stop in West Chester at the American Helicopter Museum, followed by a private fundraiser in Philadelphia. From there he will head to Virginia.
Largely blue-collar towns such as Carnegie and former mill towns along the region’s rivers are prime areas for the Republicans to get across their message, said Dane Strother, a Washington-based Democratic strategist working on several congressional races.
"They are going for ‘the little guy,’ … those blue-collar voters who identify themselves as Democrats but their pocketbooks are hurting," Strother said.
Though pundits have considered Pennsylvania a swing state during every recent election cycle, including this one, voters here have not chosen a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush won in 1988. Democratic registration outweighs Republicans nearly 2-1 statewide.
Dave Massimino, 37, of Bridgeville, the plant manager at Beaver Steel Services, is one of those registered Democrats whose vote is up for grabs.
"I am totally open to weigh what Paul Ryan is saying," he said of the vice presidential candidate’s pitch to supporters, workers and curiosity-seekers.
"I am concerned about the same thing everyone else is — the economy," Massimino said. "I need to hear an actual plan on how they are going to fix it, and less about blaming other people. … They definitely have my attention and I will give them the opportunity to earn my vote."
Rick Hagelauer of Bethel Park said he comes from "a large family of blue-collar Democrats (who are) either voting for Romney or not voting at all." Hagelauer, 65, a salesman, said he came to hear Ryan even though he already intends to vote Republican.
"It is the economy but it is a lot of other things, like health care and the restrictions on the energy industry" that drive his choice, he said.
Like several mid-Atlantic states, Pennsylvania is home to many Democrats who supported Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon — voters prone to "split with their party in tough economic times," said Curt Nichols, a political scientist at Baylor University.
Nichols said Romney and Ryan need to convert disapproval of Obama’s job performance into votes and to do so "will need the overwhelming electoral support of working-class voters."
Voters seldom pull the lever for an incumbent they do not approve of, but they sometimes choose to stay home if they aren’t certain the challenger will do a better job, he said.
"It isn’t enough to rely on dissatisfaction to create potential supporters," Nichols said. "A winning ticket must both inspire confidence in itself and let voters know it’s okay to switch horses."
A poll released last week by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster showed 44 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters back Obama and 38 percent back Romney, but 15 percent remain undecided. Obama’s six-point lead is down double digits from a 12-point lead in early June. The latest survey, from Aug. 7-12, was conducted before and after Romney’s announcement of Ryan as his running mate.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter