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 die-hard 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 rallygoers 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 onstage 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 heart surgeon and 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 on screen 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.”
Trump combined the attacks on McCormick with standard-issue praise for Oz’s policy convictions that sounded like they could have been about any of Trump’s Republican endorsees.
“As your senator, Oz will fight to end illegal immigration, end sanctuary cities, and put dangerous criminals behind bars,” Trump said. “That’s what he wants to do. He’s going to stop the Democrats, socialists and communists, and confront China like no senator in the history of our state.”
At the same time, Trump, a former TV star himself, sounded like his real reason for endorsing Oz was his respect for Oz’s career on camera.
“I’ve known him a long time. He’s on that screen,” Trump said. “He’s in the bedrooms of all those women, telling them good and bad. And they love him.”
Indeed, as a fellow TV celebrity seeking to enter politics, Trump faced similar skepticism over his history of licentious habits and liberal stances on social issues. During the 2016 GOP presidential primary, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) famously blasted Trump’s “New York values.”
But Trump began burnishing his right-wing credentials years earlier as a champion of the “birther” conspiracy theory about then-President Barack Obama.
When asked why he worried about Oz’s Hollywood associations, but not Trump’s, Mike Dugan, a Walmart worker at the rally, responded, “[Trump]’s convinced me that he’s not a big liberal.”
Still, among many of the rally’s younger and less ideological attendees, Trump’s word was enough to secure support for Oz.
“Anyone who Trump supports, I’ll support,” said Cody Lusebrink, a plumber.
Amanda McNamee, a business operations specialist and Lusebrink’s girlfriend, agreed. She also said it was “comforting” to hear Oz condemn what he regards as excessive COVID-19-related public health policies, since he is a physician.
If Oz wins Pennsylvania’s GOP primary on May 17, it will be another major victory for Trump on the heels of a big win in the neighboring state of Ohio. Trump’s endorsement of J.D. Vance in the Ohio Republican Senate primary helped Vance, a former outspoken critic of Trump, clinch the nomination on Tuesday.
Vance joined Oz and Trump at the rally on Friday and announced that he was endorsing Oz, both because of Oz’s commitment to taking on China and because of the implications of an Oz win for what Vance characterized as a Republican civil war.
“It’s not about Dr. Oz,” Vance said. “It’s not about anything other than you and Donald Trump.”
A subset of elite Republicans is “trying to make it so that Trump-endorsed candidates get defeated because when they do, the fake news media back there will say, ‘Well, Donald Trump’s endorsement doesn’t matter,’” he added.