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Clinton’s mission on the road through battleground states: Lure working-class white voters away from Trump’s camp

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
(AFP/Getty Images)

By the time Hillary Clinton rolled up here for the final stop of her bus tour through Pennsylvania and Ohio, she had campaigned at a toy manufacturer, a wire factory, a convention center and a school.

She bought a milkshake at a local shop, spoke from a church pulpit and showed off her husband’s locally-made shirt.

And at every place along the way, Clinton tried to drive a wedge between Donald Trump and the white, working-class voters the Republican nominee is counting on to win this presidential election.

With Trump touting his money-making prowess, Clinton painted the New York businessman as interested only in lining his own pockets at the expense of American workers.

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“Let’s cut through all of the hype and rhetoric and understand that we’re dealing with somebody who has a history of stiffing people, making things somewhere else besides America, and wherever possible, hiring foreign workers,” she said to more than 5,000 people standing under the hot sun on a grassy lawn.

The three-day trip was Clinton’s first since she accepted the Democratic nomination in Philadelphia, taking her through some of the election’s most important political battlegrounds. Ohio remains a key swing state, and even though no Democratic candidate has lost Pennsylvania since 1988, Clinton wants to ward off any chance of letting disillusioned voters roll the dice with a Republican candidate lacking any government experience.

“People are frustrated and angry. They just don’t see Washington helping,” said Richard Bloomingdale, president of the 800,000-member Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. “That’s why they’re attracted to a clown. They don’t take government seriously anymore.”

Throughout her trip, Clinton walked a fine line between sympathizing with dissatisfied workers’ desire for change and trying to convince them that they still needed an experienced, policy-driven politician in the White House.

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“We can’t be satisfied with the status quo. I’m not. Not by a long shot,” she said at a factory in Johnstown, Pa. At the same time, Clinton said, Republicans have “spent more time on insults for me than jobs for you.”

People are frustrated and angry. They just don’t see Washington helping. That’s why they’re attracted to a clown.

Richard Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO

Clinton also offered a dose of tough medicine to economically struggling areas that have seen the slow death of manufacturing jobs.

“Donald Trump is offering the false promise that he can somehow turn the clock back to the jobs of yesterday. Those days are over,” Clinton said in Harrisburg, Pa., on Friday. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t do a better job of making it possible for everybody else to get prepared to take the jobs that will be here.”

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Over and over, she returned to Trump’s decision to make his own products overseas, mocking his promises to put “America first.” While speaking in Youngstown, Ohio, on Saturday, she asked, “Why does he make Trump suits in Mexico instead of Brooklyn, Ohio?” Earlier in the day in Pittsburgh, she noted that “he makes Trump shirts in Bangladesh, not Ashland, Pa.”

International trade has been a fault line in the campaign. When Clinton visited a wire factory in Johnstown, there were protesters standing outside in the rain waving Trump signs. The county voted for Mitt Romney over President Obama in 2012, and the Trump campaign said Clinton should be blamed for job losses there because she’s supported trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has not been approved by Congress. (Clinton has said she wants to renegotiate NAFTA and that she opposes TPP.)

“Hillary Clinton visiting Johnstown, Pa., is like a robber visiting their victim,” said a statement from Stephen Miller, a senior policy advisor for Trump.

To ensure victory in Pennsylvania, Clinton will be relying on people like Bloomingdale, the labor leader who met with the candidate after her rally in Harrisburg.

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“I’m used to politicians asking a question and then answering it, and wanting me to nod and say, yeah, that’s a great idea,” he said. “With Secretary Clinton, it was clearly someone that wanted to hear our ideas.”

The union plans to fan out across the state, talking with voters at plant gates and on their front steps.

“We’re going to put our reputation on the line because we’re confident that Secretary Clinton will follow through,” Bloomingdale said.

The decline in manufacturing and the shift toward cleaner energy has left workers feeling adrift, Bloomingdale said, no matter how much new training is promised to prepare them for new careers.

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“Their attitude is, what are you going to train me for?” he said. “I’m 55. I’ve been digging coal all my life. I’m probably not going to be a computer programmer.”

Peter Tokar, 45, of Harrisburg is someone who was able to find steady work with computers, but he remains so disgusted with the political establishment that he’s ready to vote for Trump.

“Even if he doesn’t succeed in everything, if he can blow up the political process that’s a win for the American people,” he said.

Other people who attended Clinton’s rallies – including the economically displaced white men whose support Trump is seeking – remained adamantly opposed to him.

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Jim Hollis, 46, of Johnstown was a sheet-metal worker until his job dried up five years ago. For a while he made ends meet with a mix of unemployment checks and odd jobs before finally starting a new career working with children with intellectual disabilities.

“Trump has no clue as to how government works,” he said.

Lisa Koss, 55, of Sharon, Pa., works as a cashier in a candy store where her husband became a janitor after getting laid off from a steel mill. But neither of them see any reason to vote for Trump.

“He’s not offering any solutions,” she said. “It’s just divisiveness. It’s anger.”

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Clinton has offered a pile of policy proposals. She promised tax credits for apprenticeship programs, expanded access to high-speed Internet, a dramatic boost in spending on infrastructure and new incentives for businesses to hire workers.

The trip was also a blunt-force demonstration of the Clinton team’s logistical strength. The campaign convoy included two big blue buses with the words “Stronger Together” on the side, several police cars that blocked traffic along the way, multiple vans and two more large buses for the posse of reporters following along.

On Friday night, the vehicles wove through a beleaguered neighborhood of Harrisburg, dotted by vacant lots and sagging brick apartment buildings, to arrive in a picturesque town square. The buses were parked behind the stage so the words “Stronger Together” would be visible to television cameras as Clinton spoke, her pink jacket standing out against the vehicle’s blue exterior.

Red, white and blue bunting hung under the bright Broad Street Market sign that helped illuminate the scene. Someone pressed a homemade sign to a window above a storefront, telling Clinton she was “lookin’ great at 68.”

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“What a beautiful night it is,” Clinton said.

Throughout the year, analysts have questioned whether Clinton can compete with the national media’s focus on Trump and the controversies he sparks like brush fires along the campaign trail. On Sunday morning, the talk shows were jammed with coverage of Trump’s feud with the parents of a Muslim American soldier who was killed in Iraq, and there was little talk about Clinton’s economic plans.

But Clinton dominated the front page of local newspapers where she visited. “Dem ticket rides into city,” said the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown.

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In Youngstown, where Clinton and vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine arrived hours late on Saturday night, the paper blared “Hillary rallies the Valley.”

Clinton said she would be back to the region throughout the campaign, and she pleaded with her Youngstown audience to talk with other voters about Trump.

“I want you to ask your friends and neighbors: Is this somebody who really cares about the people of the Mahoning Valley,” which straddles Ohio and Pennsylvania.

At least one Clinton supporter left that night ready to have that conversation. Ray McColl, 67, a retired welder from Franklin, Pa., said his grandson had a Trump sign in front of his house.

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“I don’t understand it,” he said. “Me and him are going to have a talk.”

chris.megerian@latimes.com

Twitter: @chrismegerian

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