Ryan urges Western Pa. voters to 'make a change'

| Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012, 12:50 p.m.

Vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan appealed to middle-class voters on Tuesday at a suburban steel company, urging them to swing the November presidential election to the GOP no matter their party affiliation.

The Wisconsin congressman walked on stage clutching a Terrible Towel as a crowd of about 2,000 supporters at Beaver Steel Services, a family-owned manufacturer in Rosslyn Farms Industrial Park, chanted, “Here we go, Ryan, here we go!”

Above his makeshift stage, in front of a flatbed truck holding steel plates, hung a banner reading “We did build it” — a reference to President Obama's July 13 speech in Virginia, in which he said business people did not succeed on their own but instead with the help of an American system.

Ryan revved up the crowd with a reference to Obama's 2008 comment about Pennsylvania Democrats who cling to traditional values of hunting and churchgoing.

“Hey, I am a Catholic deer hunter,” he said. “I am happy to be clinging to my gun and my religion.”

Ryan, 42, a seven-term House member, has visited swing states since presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney tabbed him as his running mate 10 days ago. He planned a second stop in West Chester at the American Helicopter Museum, followed by a private fundraiser in Philadelphia, before heading to Virginia.

“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,” Ryan told workers and curiosity-seekers in Rosslyn Farms. “... We have to get this country on the right track.”

Protesters organized by the Obama campaign greeted Ryan. The president's surrogates, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, touted Obama's record of creating jobs and supporting manufacturers, and warned the Republicans would raise taxes on the middle class.

“President Obama has cut taxes 18 times for small businesses, encouraged them to hire, helped small businesses access credit, and worked to level the playing field between small businesses and large corporations,” the campaign said in a statement that noted the nation has experienced 29 consecutive months of private-sector job growth.

Largely blue-collar areas, such as 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 Republican nearly 2-1 statewide.

Polling of likely voters by the nonpartisan Washington-based Purple Strategies shows the state in play. Its monthly poll of 12 battleground states, including Pennsylvania, last week found that Ryan boosted the GOP ticket by 3 percentage points, pushing Romney to a thin lead over Obama, 47 percent to 46 percent. Obama last month led that poll by 2 percentage points.

A poll by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, conducted Aug. 7-12, showed 44 percent of Pennsylvania's registered voters back Obama and 38 percent back Romney, but 15 percent remain undecided. Obama had a 12-point lead in early June.

For that reason, Romney and Ryan will continue courting people around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Strother and other experts said.

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 have been a registered Democrat my entire life, but I am willing to place my vote with whoever will be the champion of the middle class,” Massimino said. Like everyone else, he said, he's worried about the economy. “I need to hear an actual plan on how they are going to fix it.”

Obama has struggled with white, working-class voters since winning their vote four years ago. Allegheny County overwhelmingly chose Obama over Arizona Sen. John McCain, 57 percent to 41 percent, but voters in surrounding counties supported McCain.

Pennsylvania and several mid-Atlantic states are home to 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.

Especially with Reagan, Republicans “began attracting blue-collar whites, rural voters, and conservative Catholics and Protestants by talking up pocketbook issues and shared values,” said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist at Purple Strategies. “And for a long time, they were very successful.”

Nichols said Romney and Ryan need “the overwhelming electoral support of working-class voters” to convert disapproval of Obama's job performance into votes. People seldom pull the lever for an incumbent they do not like, but they might not vote if they aren't certain the challenger will do a better job, he said.

“A winning ticket must both inspire confidence in itself and let voters know it's OK to switch horses,” Nichols said.

Salena Zito is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at szito@tribweb.com.

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