Hillary Clinton’s three-day bus ride across battleground Pennsylvania and Ohio was supposed to celebrate her nomination with new running mate Sen. Tim Kaine, showcase her plans to add jobs and ring a bell for the fall election.
It ended up being mostly about Donald Trump.
At nearly every stop through two states that Democrats must win in November, Clinton and Kaine talked about the Republican almost as much as they talked about themselves. She invoked him sometimes with red-meat outrage, sometimes with a tone of disbelief and sometimes for laughs.
“Donald Trump may think we never win anymore and our country is full of losers, but, boy, is he wrong!” Clinton said during a visit to a factory here that she held up as symbolic of Rust Belt revival.
“We still do big things and we can do more big things,” she said. “We’re not going to build a giant wall. We’re going to build roads and bridges and tunnels and forts and airports and water systems and a new electric . . .”
Clinton wasn’t able to finish; the rest of her litany was drowned out by a roar of applause from the mostly union workers gathered on a dusty shop floor.
Clinton and Kaine mentioned Trump’s name 36 times in some 45 minutes of remarks here Saturday, and referenced him without naming him several times more. It was a recognition that the fall election has become a referendum on the businessman and political novice more than on the polarizing woman who has been at the center of American politics for a quarter-century. And that is mostly fine by her.
Many Democrats have concluded that the more the election is framed as a rejection of Trump, the less many voters are likely to focus on the particulars of their discomfort and dislike of Clinton. The cautious, traditional campaign that Clinton has built, designed to re-educate voters about her background and reassure them that she can be trusted, now appears to agree.
The bus tour, which has stopped in cities and towns that have lost manufacturing jobs, served both as political theater and a targeted response to Trump’s inroads among white working- and middle-class voters.
A main strategy for the Democratic ticket is to undermine Trump’s populist support by casting him as a cheat and a phony. Clinton and Kaine told crowds that Trump has stiffed small businesses, busted unions and outsourced jobs. Democrats hope it is a way of introducing questions about who Trump really is and helping to neutralize Clinton’s challenge holding voters’ trust.
In Harrisburg on Friday night, Kaine asked an enthusiastic crowd whether anyone believed Trump’s promises and boasts.
“Not one word,” he said, and then led the crowd in chanting the phrase.
That did not stop one man at the back of the crowd from shouting “liar!” when Clinton spoke.
Even while skewering Trump daily, Clinton initially steered clear during the bus tour of the storm of criticism surrounding Trump’s response to the family of a Muslim officer killed in Iraq. She cited the controversy near the close of the tour Sunday, during a visit to a black church in Cleveland.
The Democratic National Convention last week was choreographed around Trump even as speaker after speaker praised Clinton as an advocate for working people, immigrants, women, children, the disabled and a host of other constituencies.
But it was Clinton herself who cast Trump as an autocrat in the making – and the election as a national test of character.
“America is once again at a moment of reckoning,” she said in accepting the presidential nomination Thursday. “Powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart. Bonds of trust and respect are fraying. And just as with our founders, there are no guarantees. It truly is up to us.”
The patriotic theme continued Friday as the bus tour began. The Democrats’ first appearance, in Philadelphia, was preceded by the Pledge of Allegiance, and volunteers handed out American flags to the crowd.
“Donald Trump painted a picture, a negative, dark, divisive picture of a country in decline” at the Republicans’ nominating convention the week before, Clinton said. “He insisted that America is weak, and he told us all, after laying out this very dark picture, that ‘I alone can fix it.'”
That goes against the founding idea of America, Clinton said, which is that democracy is erected from the bottom up.
The founders, she said, “knew they didn’t want one person, one man, to have all the power like a king.”
Kaine, with a delighted grin, said the Republican convention “wasn’t a tour of this country. It was a journey through Donald Trump’s mind, and that is a very frightening place.”
Clinton got a slight bump in a CBS poll of battleground states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, released Sunday. After both conventions, she regained a slight lead, 43 percent to 41 percent, in the 11 states where the election is expected to be decided. That is within the poll’s margin of error.
Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri said Clinton does not think the election is entirely a referendum on Trump, noting: “We’re very careful to make sure she’s running her own campaign on an economic agenda.”
In Hatfield, Pennsylvania, and then in Harrisburg on Friday, Clinton and Kaine touted a jobs plan she claims will help restore American manufacturing. Trump, they said, has offered nothing. His campaign refuted that, saying he has a detailed jobs proposal and blaming the persistent economic malaise in places like western Pennsylvania on nearly eight years of a Democratic presidency.
On Saturday, in a driving rain, the tour moved deep into potential Trump country.
Cambria County, home of the Johnstown Wire Technologies plant Clinton and Kaine toured Saturday, is some 90 percent white with a median household income below $50,000. Mitt Romney won the rural western Pennsylvania county in 2012; President Obama won it in 2008, George W. Bush in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000.
As she approached the old factory, Clinton’s bright blue bus, which her campaign made sure to tell reporters was made in America, rolled past a small but loud group of Trump supporters. They held official campaign signs and handmade varieties, and booed her from the roadside.
“I’m an optimist, and I’m confident,” Clinton told the crowd inside. “And I think if you look at American history, that’s how we get things done. It’s not the whiners and the complainers and the insulters who move our country forward,” she said to applause. “It’s the workers and the builders, it’s people who get up every day and try to figure out how it’s going to be better for them and their families.”
In Pittsburgh, Clinton collected the public endorsement of native son and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Like Trump, he is a businessman turned reality television star. Cuban had previously said he might vote for Trump. But during the Democratic convention he told Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta that he had changed his mind and was “ready to go,” a Clinton aide said.
That Pennsylvania is considered a battleground this year is testament to the demographic and political shifts that Trump intends to exploit. The state has voted Democratic in each presidential election from 1992 forward, including both terms of former president Bill Clinton, based largely on Democratic strength in cities and union households.
Bill Clinton accompanied his wife on the tour, which echoed the heartland one he took with Gore upon winning the Democratic nomination in 1992. Seated to one side of his wife as she spoke in Johnstown, Clinton obligingly opened his jacket to flash his casual shirt when she noted that unlike many Trump-branded products, his was made in the United States.
“You truly are the reason I have so much confidence that America’s best days are still ahead of us,” Hillary Clinton said. “It’s in stark contrast to the vision that Donald Trump is laying out, because I don’t think we’re weak. I don’t think we’re in decline. I think we can pull together because we are stronger together.”
Slowed by rain, the 27-vehicle motorcade of buses, vans and police cars rolled into Youngstown, Ohio, after 10 p.m. Saturday night – two hours late. Julie Green, born in the hard-luck city and now living a few miles away in Girard, was waiting and apparently receptive to the argument that Trump represents an ominous turn for American politics.
“I understand the allure of the people that follow him, but I think that it’s also very important to educate people about what the reality is versus what they see on television,” Green said.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Anne Gearan