PITTSBURGH - In the first wave of the White House's new western Pennsylvania offensive, one of President Donald Trump's chief aides on Thursday attacked Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb on abortion while casting Republican Rick Saccone as "a reliable vote" for the president.
White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway, the first of three Republican heavyweights set to campaign in the region before Tuesday's special election, charged that even a single vote could affect Trump's policy agenda on Capitol Hill.
"Every vote counts at the ballot box, but every vote counts in Washington right now too," she told a dozen campaign volunteers at an Allegheny County GOP office. She added later, "The president wants a reliable vote in Washington."
Conway acknowledged she was the "warm-up band" for the White House's final-days push to preserve a Republican congressional seat in Pennsylvania's 18th district, a working-class region that stretches from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the West Virginia border. The president is scheduled to attend a local rally on Saturday followed by his son, Donald Trump Jr., on Monday.
The high-profile reinforcements from the president's orbit were welcomed by Saccone, a 60-year-old state representative, who has wholeheartedly embraced Trump throughout his campaign. Trump carried the region by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016. Yet with the election just days away, polls suggest that Saccone is essentially tied with Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine and former federal prosecutor who has never before run for office.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden campaigned on Lamb's behalf earlier in the week, but national Democrats were not expected to bring in additional high-profile surrogates in the campaign's waning days.
"We've got Donald Trump. We've got his son. We've had Ivanka. What does the other side have? They've have crazy uncle Joe Biden," Saccone said before Conway's visit.
"Everybody wants to help," the Republican candidate continued. "It's like President Trump with winning — there's so much help we're going to get tired of help."
The White House is not taking any chances in the latest Trump-era special election, knowing that the result will inevitably reflect upon the president.
Democrats have over-performed in virtually every contest across the country since Trump took the White House. And the sting of the GOP's embarrassing December defeat in Alabama's special Senate race, in which Trump lent his name and time to failed Republican nominee Roy Moore, is still fresh.
Trump's Saturday visit will be his second in two months. Daughter Ivanka Trump appeared with Saccone in a separate visit last month as well and praised him as "a champion" for Republican priorities.
Beyond surrogates, the Republican National Committee, which is the White House's political arm, has spent more than $1.1 million so far to support Saccone, said committee spokesman Rick Gorka. Other national groups allied with the GOP have spent nearly $8 million on advertising in the race, which is more than seven times the amount invested by national Democratic allies not affiliated with the Lamb campaign.
"The RNC is heavily focused on winning this race," Gorka said.
Conway lashed out at Lamb as "extreme" on abortion, seizing on his opposition to a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
"Most pro-choicers say they're for reasonable restrictions. But the Democratic Party platform is not. It essentially is abortion for anyone, anytime, anywhere," Conway said.
At a GOP dinner later in the day, she linked Lamb to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a common theme in the GOP's strategy against Democrats nationwide this year.
"Conor Lamb said he'll vote against Nancy Pelosi, but he sounds a lot like her most times," she said. "So I don't believe it."
Lamb has said he personally opposes abortion as a Catholic, but he supports a woman's right to choose as set in law.
Conway's appearance comes just days after a federal watchdog determined that she violated the federal law prohibiting government officials from using their positions to influence political campaigns.
The Office of Special Counsel, which is unrelated to Robert Mueller's office, said Conway violated the Hatch Act twice last year when she spoke out in support of Moore in Alabama's Senate race. The White House disputed the independent agency's findings.
She repeatedly noted Thursday that she was in Pennsylvania "in her personal capacity" and not on official White House business.
Lamb, meanwhile, shrugged off news of the White House's aggressive strategy when asked late Wednesday.
"This is the first I'm hearing about it," he told The Associated Press in a brief interview. "I think our ground game is just really strong. It's people that are from here talking to neighbours and going to their churches. I just think that's a lot stronger."
"We'll find out," Lamb said.
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.