By BOB KING and ERICA MARTINSON
Anger over coal helped an imprisoned felon defeat President Barack Obama this month in several West Virginia counties.
Now Republicans hope Mitt Romney can squeeze an electoral diamond out of coal country in battleground states such as Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The GOP has stoked the fires by accusing Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency of making it more difficult to mine or burn coal, and Republicans made hay when a “clean coal” section quietly turned up on the president’s campaign website after the West Virginia drubbing.
During Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Ohio last week, Republicans made sure coal turned up seemingly everywhere in protests, GOP email blasts, Web videos and even a chance restaurant encounter with a Romney campaign flack.
This isn’t a new playbook for Republicans: A similar strategy in 2010 torpedoed more than two dozen Hill lawmakers who had voted for the cap-and-trade climate bill, helping flip control of the House to the GOP. And coal country stretches across states that are crucial to Obama’s hopes for reelection.
One of the fallen Democrats from 2010, former 14-term Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher, said the president’s campaign team has reason to worry about how coal-minded voters will react.
“I think it is a perilous issue politically,” Boucher said, adding that Obama needs to present a “positive” response to concerns about lost mining jobs and rising energy costs resulting from EPA’s actions. “There is real concern in our coal-producing communities. The concern is well founded.”
Boucher said Obama is no enemy of coal and, in fact, championed policies that would have helped fund a new generation of carbon-capturing “clean coal” power plants. Boucher played a big role in spreading a similar message to voters in 2008.
The Obama camp also delights in pointing out Romney’s own vulnerabilities on the issue — for example, a 2003 speech in which he said an aging coal-burning plant in Massachusetts “kills people.”
But the GOP is doing all it can to make the “war on coal” message stick against Obama.
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