With Pennsylvania up in the air, one rural county goes big for

By Nathan Layne

MCCONNELLSBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - As commissioners of Fulton County, Pennsylvania, worked to finish tallying the vote early on Wednesday, the only question was whether President Donald would top the 84% support he received in the rural Republican stronghold in 2016.

The fate of the state - and 's chances in the national election - would be for others to decide.

"It will be a few days before we know Pennsylvania," said Randy Bunch, a county commissioner and supporter, after confirming that had won the county with 85.3% of the vote. "It is what it is."

Fulton County is Country. In 2016, the Republican president's overwhelming victory there made it the "reddest" of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. Tuesday's result was a sign the coronavirus pandemic had not dented 's popularity in this south-central slice of the state.

Running up the score in areas like Fulton County has been seen as critical to 's chances in Pennsylvania, a battleground state also prized by Democratic challenger Joe Biden and which could ultimately determine the election.

As of 2:25 a.m. (0725 GMT), Pennsylvania still had more than 1.5 million mail-in ballots left to count and official state tallies were not expected until later this week. The result in Fulton County, however, was never in doubt.

Interviews over the past week with more than three dozen residents of the county, which is 97% white, revealed an almost unshakeable belief that had their interests at heart. yard signs in McConnellsburg, the county seat, outnumber Biden's 20-to-1.

Melissa Henry said sales at the used car dealer where she works had boomed under , and that she was worried a Biden administration, which she believes would move the country toward socialism, would undo all those gains.

"If it goes Biden's way, it will destroy the United States," said Henry, 55, adding that she hoped the Republicans, in the event of a Biden victory, would fight the Democrats on "every single thing they do" to thwart their agenda.

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While national opinion polls show 's perceived mismanagement of the pandemic had given an edge to Biden, Fulton County voters broadly dismissed that criticism as politically driven and blamed the states for failing to control the virus, while echoing in saying it was overhyped.

From Johnnie's Diner to the local gun shop to Tuesday's meeting of the election board - very few people wear masks.

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"I think the whole reason for the downturn is the fact that the media wants to try to scare everybody to death," said David O'Neal, a salesman for boom-lift maker JLG Industries, which has its headquarters in McConnellsburg.

FLYOVER COUNTRY

Fulton County, with 9,829 registered voters, is one of the smallest in the state. But it is a microcosm of what underpins 's support in rural areas, with gun rights and social- conservative issues at the top of voters' minds.

Several voters said Biden also hurt his chances by saying in the final debate he would "transition away" from the oil industry - a remark seen as a threat to the economic vitality of the state. They believe Biden will take a softer stance on China, which could hurt manufacturers like JLG.

But perhaps more important is the general sense that , unlike previous presidents, paid attention to their needs.

"They are flyover country within flyover country," said Republican state Representative Jesse Topper, whose constituency includes Fulton County. "Folks who are very proud, work very hard, but who also feel they are overlooked."

The national protests set off by the death in May of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, also hardened views against Biden, with Democrats seen as too supportive of demonstrations that sometimes turned violent.

But voters generally said they were ready to accept the outcome of the election, be it Biden or .

"It's not the end of the world whoever gets it," said Rick Keefer, a 49-year-old welder who voted for .

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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