ALTOONA, Pennsylvania — Just two days ago, Michelle Damiano was very seriously thinking of voting for Kathy Barnette, the insurgent candidate running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania. Ten minutes after watching Dave McCormick speak in person at a meet-and-greet at Oak Spring winery in this Blair County city, she found herself swayed by McCormick. She now says she will vote for him on Tuesday.

“I was undecided until I heard him speak, got a real understanding of who he is and what he stands for, and saw him outside the glare of the negative ads both he and Oz have run in this campaign,” said Damiano.

“If I have any criticism to make of his campaign, it was the negative ads. This guy is really aspirational, has a powerful message," said the small businesswoman, who had traveled here from State College. "Had I not had my friend bring me to this event and saw him and his message in person, I don’t know if I would have voted for him."

Washington County native McCormick, Barnette, and Dr. Mehmet Oz are locked in a tight race between the three of them as voters go to the polls on Tuesday in Pennsylvania. The race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Lehigh Valley has been filled with outside drama that includes an angry former president, a petulant Club for Growth, and outside forces egging on everyone in the hopes that the Republican Party collapses in this must-win state for the Republicans in the fall.

Karen and Scott Schraff, owners of the charming winery located at the base of the mountains on the edge of town in Altoona, had agreed to host the McCormick event, but both said they still weren’t sure they were going to vote for him.

ALTOONA — Karen and Scott Schraff, owners of Oak Spring Winery, with Dina McCormick. (Salena Zito)

“We have been looking at Kathy Barnette,” said Karen, her husband, Scott, nodding in agreement.

Damiano and the Scraffs aren’t alone. In events across the state, in dozens of counties in the closing days of the campaign, voters at McCormick events, mostly suburban women, told the same story of being drawn to Barnette’s performance at the Grove City event two weeks ago. But some of them have hit the brakes on Barnette as she struggles to set people straight on her resume.

Damiano was brought here by her friend, Miriam Schneider, who in turn was invited to this event by another friend. The first thing all of the women said they were doing when they got home was to tell their friends and family to vote for McCormick on Tuesday.

“McCormick earned my vote tonight, I am so glad I came,” said Schneider, who had also considered voting for Barnette. In fact, it was the same story told over and over again in Lancaster, Beaver County, and Erie.

BEAVER COUNTY — Debbie Philippi, Cathy Forsythe and Debbie Debiec moved their votes away from Kathy Barnette and to David McCormick in the final days of this election. (Salena Zito)

To be sure, this is purely anecdotal evidence that McCormick, who led in the race until former President Donald Trump endorsed Oz, is bouncing back. McCormick took another blow when Trump decided 10 days ago, at a poorly attended rally, to scorch McCormick after his endorsed candidate was booed right there in front of him.

Polling conducted by Mark Harris, who runs an outside group supporting the campaign, showed McCormick ahead by 1 percentage point over Barnette, followed by Oz. Two days earlier, she had surged ahead of both. But she has since failed to confirm the stories she has told of her life experiences. She has also claimed to a reporter that tweets from her personal account weren’t hers. Then she closed her Saturday rally to the journalists assigned to cover her final events — the opposite of what Trump did during his campaigns, when he welcomed but also liberally bashed the media.

ALTOONA — Michelle Damiano and Miriam Schneider were considering voting for Kathy Barnette after seeing her rise in the polls but decided to go with David McCormick after meeting him in Altoona. (Salena Zito)

Barnette's surge caused infighting in the conservative movement, with suspicious social media accounts egging on the fight. If successful, she may well cause the Republicans to lose this seat in the fall to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is set to crush Conor Lamb in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

In Beaver County, Debbie Phillippi says she is about as "MAGA" as you can get. She says she moved hard toward Barnette last week, then had an awakening when she and her girlfriends decided at the last minute to go to a McCormick event. “Wow — I mean, this guy has it all," she said. "I wish I had known this side of him and not just all of those negative ads to see how accomplished he is, down to earth, and, more importantly, how much he genuinely cares about the movement, the country, and Pennsylvania,” she said.
Her friend Cathy Forthsye agreed. “My tipping point to him and away from her was going to see him at an event in Carnegie," she said. “I really liked how Dave supports the Second Amendment, which is extremely important, especially in Pennsylvania. But I also like his demeanor, and I like that he's a businessman, which is why I voted for Trump."

It is hard to say who will win on Tuesday here in this state. Voters' opinions can be very fluid in primaries, and candidates typically lack the massive turnout operations that characterize general elections. In a tight, three-way race, the question is whether Barnette peaked a week too soon and whether McCormick can pull this out by the skin of his teeth. If he does, he will have done it by going to where the voters are, making his case, and asking them for their vote.