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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was in far eastern Ohio on Tuesday — seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
But Beallsville is in the middle of coal country, and this site was carefully chosen. There's a battle over messaging on coal in Ohio, a state with huge coal reserves and an important but troubled coal industry.
For months, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has been buying ads in Ohio, talking up coal jobs and blasting the Obama administration's "heavy-handed regulations" on coal.
In turn, the Obama campaign launched a radio ad a week ago, praising the president's record on coal. It claims that coal jobs are up 10 percent, and that a $5 billion investment in clean coal technology is one of the largest ever.
The ad also blasts Romney for misrepresenting President Obama when it comes to coal, and it notes that Romney said at a 2003 press conference in front of a coal plant that he "will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant kills people."
That ad got Obama in trouble with some environmentalists who are opposed to coal, and say Obama shouldn't be criticizing Romney for saying "true things about coal." There's now an online petition asking the president to pull the ad.
And the concerns over the candidates' positions on coal extend to workers as well.
The United Mine Workers endorsed Obama in 2008. Now, a leader for the 105,000-member union says at this point it will "stay out" of this election, declining to endorse either Obama or Romney.
Just last Friday, a coal plant in Ohio closed down, costing 56 workers their jobs. The Red Bird West mine, operated by Ohio American Energy, is owned by Murray Energy. The company's leaders are big contributors to Republican candidates, and founder Robert Murray has very publicly laid the blame for the shutdown squarely on President Obama and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat who's running for re-election. The National Republican Senatorial Committee jumped in on that.
Romney's campaign stop Tuesday took place at another coal plant owned by Murray Energy. Speaking with dozens of hard-hatted mine workers behind him, Romney referenced the Obama radio ad, saying it's "not true."
Romney told the crowd that Obama's policies are helping the development of alternative energy at the expense of the coal industry. And Romney quoted Vice President Joe Biden saying that "coal is more dangerous than terrorists."
Romney notes that to win Ohio, Obama has to win eastern Ohio. So does Romney — he nearly lost the Ohio primary in March to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, primarily because of Santorum's strong showing in eastern Ohio.
Karen Kasler is chief of the Statehouse News Bureau for Ohio Public Radio and Television.
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