GREENSBURG, Pa. — As the music that welcomed Dr. Mehmet Oz onto the stage tapered off on Friday night, boos from a segment of the crowd of diehard Donald Trump supporters became more audible.
Oz responded by trying to butter up the crowd with one of his favorite partisan lines about President Joe Biden.
“I love you guys, Pennsylvania!” he declared. “I love that you’re out here in the rain in Westmoreland, and I know why you’re excited: Because the only thing that Joe Biden has built back better is the Republican Party. Do I have it right?”
The audience, which was there primarily to hear Trump speak, reacted with mild applause.
The only thing more mediocre than the reception Oz received was the poor weather at the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds. Hours of torrential rain turned the dirt surface beneath the Trump fans’ feet into ankle-deep mud, prompting rally-goers to take turns seeking shelter in the grandstands.
By the time Trump came to speak, more than an hour after Oz, the crowd proved more receptive to his pitch. Trump even welcomed Oz back on stage to address the crowd briefly alongside him.
But the central tension of the evening had already been laid bare.
After months of attacks from Oz’s GOP rival Dave McCormick, a hedge fund manager with a seemingly endless array of deep-pocketed allies, some Pennsylvania Republican primary voters are wary of Oz’s conservative bona fides, not least on social issues like gun rights and abortion rights. Oz, a television personality who moved from New Jersey to his wife’s parents’ hometown in suburban Philadelphia to run, had previously voiced support for gun control and abortion rights that he now disavows.
Timothy Lohr, a truck driver from Westmoreland County, shouted out the epithet “RINO,” an acronym for “Republican in name only,” when Oz’s videos appeared onscreen before speeches began.
“I think he’s Hollywood,” Lohr told HuffPost. “That’s just my opinion. I don’t like Hollywood.”
Other attendees said they were open to Oz, but only because Trump was backing him.
“In his past, he spent a lot of time with the left,” said Dave Popola, a machinist in the coal industry. “He was hanging around with the Obamas way too much, and Obama tanked the coal industry the first time.”
Whether Trump is capable of assuaging his more ideological voters’ concerns about Oz by personally vouching for his commitment to Trump’s “America First” wing of the Republican Party will test Trump’s influence with his own supporters in a perhaps-unprecedented way.
About halfway through a meandering speech that lasted nearly 90 minutes, Trump did his best to convince his followers that Oz is a more effective heir to his nationalistic presidency than McCormick. Oz has dubbed McCormick “Beijing Dave” because of the investments his hedge fund made in China. Trump amplified those critiques.
“So I don’t know David well and he may be a nice guy, but he’s not MAGA, he’s not MAGA,” said Trump, using the acronym for his slogan “Make America Great Again.” “I do know that he was with a company that managed money for communist China, and he is absolutely the candidate of special interests and globalists and the Washington establishment.”
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.