To Win Critical Voting Bloc, Candidates Appeal To Coal Miners

In the critical battleground of Ohio, the coal mining region has become a niche advertising market. Both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are running ads advising coal miners that their opponent hates them.

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And now to one issue in the presidential contest - coal. President Obama is embracing alternatives to coal while Mitt Romney is defending the industry and accusing the president of waging a war on coal. For Romney, that's a significant shift. As governor of Massachusetts, he clashed with coal interests, something Democrats are now trying to highlight.

NPR's David Welna tells us more.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: During their debate last week, Mitt Romney first belittled the billions of dollars President Obama has directed to green energy and then unprompted declared his allegiance to a fuel spurned by many.

MITT ROMNEY: I like coal. I'm going to make sure we can continue to burn clean coal. People in the coal industry feel like it's getting crushed by your policies.

WELNA: Romney may have been responding to this Obama campaign ad that began airing late last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On coal, well, here's what he said as governor outside a coal-fired power plant.

ROMNEY: I will not create...

WELNA: The video clip in the ad of Romney was filmed just weeks after he took office as governor of Massachusetts nearly a decade ago. In it, Romney stands outside a coal-fired power plant in Salem and accuses its owners of thumbing their noses at the state's orders to clean up the plant's emissions.

ROMNEY: You will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant - that plant kills people.

WELNA: The woman who wrote Romney's talking points for that event was surprised to hear him say the plant kills people.

SONIA HAMEL: I believe that was a little bit extemporaneous.

WELNA: Independent environment and energy consultant Sonia Hamel(ph) at the time was a special assistant at Romney's office of commonwealth development. She says his assertion that the plant kills people was, in fact, true.

HAMEL: People frequently were having major problems with soot and, you know, just absolutely filthy conditions based on the plant right in their neighborhood. The asthma rates in the neighborhood were high. Kids were having respiratory problems. Elderly people were having respiratory problems and he was taking a strong stand on making sure that was cleaned up.

WELNA: That was Romney's stance then in environmentally conscious Massachusetts. He's taken quite another stance now in the must-win state of Ohio, where coal is king in the state's eastern slopes. A TV ad the Romney campaign's been running features sooty faced coal miners in Ohio taking President Obama to task.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Obama's ruining the coal industry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The policies that the current administration's got is attacking my livelihood.

WELNA: The Obama campaign responded with this ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: See the coal miners in these ads? It turns out they were told that attendance at Mitt Romney's rally was, quote, "mandatory." Their mine was closed, lost the pay they needed, all to be props in Romney's commercial.

WELNA: They rally the ad refers to was held in Beallsville, Ohio, outside the Century Coal Mine owned by Bob Murray, a major Romney backer. Rob Moore, the mine's chief operating officer, defended that August rally. When asked about it on radio station WWVA by morning talk show host David Bloomquist...

DAVID BLOOMQUIST: Were workers forced to attend this event?

ROB MOORE: David, there were no workers that were forced to attend the event. We had managers that communicated to our workforce that the attendance at the Romney event was mandatory, but no one was forced to attend the event.

WELNA: Moore did acknowledge the mine was shut down the day of the rally and that workers were not paid.

MOORE: As a private employer, it was our decision and we made the decision not to pay the people for the day.

WELNA: All of which leaves energy consultant Hamel puzzled about her former boss Mitt Romney.

HAMEL: I don't quite understand it, but I assume that he's now running for a national position and not for something in Massachusetts, and he's looking across the country at what he needs to say and, you know, maybe what's economically more beneficial for some parts of the country. It's not a good choice for us.

WELNA: It's a choice, though, that both campaigns are now playing up. David Welna, NPR News.

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