"He's an Appalachian, just like us," says Sen. John Rockefeller IV, D-W. Va., who was born and raised in New York and is worth about $200 million. He's here vouching for Vice President Al Gore.
We're at a Friday morning rally on the steps of the state Capitol, where an all-star lineup is lauding the vice president. Union members are stacked up 30 wide, 50 thick, treated to speeches by Rockefeller, Bill Cosby, United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts and AFL-CIO treasurer Rich Trumka.
On the Kanawha River adjacent to the Capitol, a riverboat with a "Bush-Cheney" banner is docked, and indeed Bush's presence is felt here in other ways as well. The presidential race is so tight, Gore's going after West Virginia's piddly five electoral votes like pork-lovin' Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., at an Appropriations hearing.
The most recent poll has Bush up by 10 points -- 49 percent to 39 percent -- in West Virginia, even though the state has a 2-to-1 edge for registered Democrats, and has only gone for a Republican presidential candidate three times in the past 80 years -- only when the Republican was the incumbent. It's gotten so hairy here, Gore felt the need to swoop in Thursday night on Air Force II -- for his first time as a candidate -- to counter the aggressive campaign waged by his opposition.
Not only does he need to counter two successful campaign appearances apiece by Gov. George W. Bush and his running mate, former defense secretary Dick Cheney, he needs to respond to months and months of GOP advertising blasting Gore as an environmentalist out to kill the coal industry.
It's a visit that shows just how spread thin Gore is in the waning days of this campaign. In Madison, Wis., Gore tried to convince his audiences that never mind what that Ralph Nader says -- he really is strong on the environment. A dizzying 24 hours later, hes trying to assure coal miners, who wonder if the vice president's tree-hugging is just foreplay.
With 18 swing states -- each with its own specific concerns -- Gore is left changing his message daily, and without obvious big campaign themes to fall back on.
"Over the last year, particularly over the summer, the Republican Party has put a lot of money throughout the state in negative ads, attacking Al Gore and painting him as an enemy of coal," says Gore spokesman Dan Pfeiffer. He adds that high-profile state Republicans like Gov. Cecil Underwood have been publicly bashing Gore as such since 1999.
"I've never seen that much money spent by the Republican Party in West Virginia, ever," says the Mine Workers' Roberts, who was born and raised in the state. In a "misrepresentation of reality," Roberts insists, the Republicans keep repeating "that if Al Gore is elected you're gonna lose your jobs."
You'd think Gore's rediscovered populism, at least, would find a home here, in a state ranked 49th in per capita income, where in many places the nation's economic prosperity is nothing but a rumor. So Roberts tells the crowd that while the coal owners might be for Bush, the coal miners are for Gore.
Gore's speech, however, is too long (35 minutes) and too incoherent; a laundry list of government programs he wants to pass. He seems dispirited and unsure of himself. The speech's only discernible theme is a John McCain-esque "X-Files" riff on the conspiracy of "the special interests" who want to fell him because he's for the working man.
Gore tells the crowd that this election is "not only about the future of our prosperity. It has to do with whether or not you're gonna have somebody who is willing to fight for you and not for the special interests. The other side won't tell it to you plainly that they're in it to fight for the special interests. Of course not! They fuzz it up like the math."
He continued: "They will try to use all of the special interest contributions to put misleading advertisements on the TV screen every few minutes to try to make you think that up is down and black is white and outside is inside."
But the Gore-bashing taking place here is pretty straightforward. Arguably the best reason for Gore's election is the prosperity that doesn't really exist in this state, where Wal-Mart is the largest employer. Coal-mining jobs have been phased out by the thousands: There were 120,000 West Virginia coal miners in 1980; there are just 19,000 today.
In Michigan, Gore's requiem for the internal combustion engine in his book "Earth in the Balance" has been repeated regularly to voters well aware of their state's automobile-industry-driven economy. Here as well, Republicans paint Gore as an environmental extremist out to kill jobs. Suspicious of his true intentions, the Mine Workers held off endorsing Gore until late September. And all the confusion over where, exactly, Gore stands has enabled the Bush campaign to make this just one more component in its caricature of the duplicitous Gore.
"He has no credibility on their issues," says Bush spokesman Bob Hopkins.
Bush spokesman Hopkins cites a controversial West Virginia University study that found that if the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N.-sponsored, greenhouse gas-restricting treaty backed by Gore, were to take effect, coal mining would be reduced 25.5 percent, the state would lose 29,000 residents and 42,600 jobs by 2010.
"The Kyoto Protocol might not resonate in a lot of communities," Hopkins says, "but these folks know that Al Gore pushed for it."
In a local TV interview, Gore refers to this as "not a study that has credibility, in my opinion." And during this bing-bang-boom interview schedule with three of Charleston's local TV press corps (ABC and Fox share a guy), Gore is put on the defensive, asked over and over how his environmentalism will play here.
"Many here in West Virginia fear that your stance on the environment could cost West Virginia coal miners their jobs," says the ABC/Fox guy. "Your reaction to that?"
To the reporter, as on the stump, Gore says that he's for "clean-coal technology." But it's a question that has some resonance.
Even the fiery Roberts -- who in his speech refers to putting "Newt Gingrich's fat ass" on a train out of town -- allows in an interview that there was a reason for his union's late endorsement.
"There was concern on our part over some of the environmental policies of the vice president," Roberts says. "But those were resolved in a positive manner" after dozens of phone calls and a letter from Gore outlining his commitment to coal-mining jobs -- plus a couple of clarifications on his desire for provisions to the Kyoto Protocol. The union endorsed him two weeks after receiving the letter.
Roberts faults Bush's dad for the loss of more than 20,000 of his union member's jobs. After the Clean Air Act passed in 1990, the elder Bush had a choice to either require new technologies to develop clean coal in the form of scrubbers that would remove sulfur dioxide from coal, or to allow utilities to switch their type of fuel. Bush went for the latter option, Roberts says, which sent all the jobs to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, where there's low-sulfur coal.
"Eastern West Virginia, Kentucky, Western Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee took a beating," he says. "There's more coal being used in the U.S. now than in 1990, but as of last year, for the first time in the history of the United States, there's more coal being produced west of the Mississippi than east of the Mississippi."
George W. Bush is nothing if not a man who has learned from his father's mistakes, however, and thus "has committed to $2 billion to fund research into clean-coal technology," according to Hopkins. So Gore needs to do more than just back clean coal to get an edge.
At the rally, Rockefeller tells the crowd that after congressional Republicans cut retired coal miners' health benefits, "Al Gore personally came forward and inserted in the federal budget $346 million to solve for all time the question of coal miners retired health benefits."
Gore then takes it that personal one-step further, that one where Prince Albert is suddenly a barefoot, coveralls-clad Appalachian.
Reminding the crowd that his former House district in Tennessee contained a chunk of Appalachia, Gore tells the crowd, "I have spent many a Saturday night in a small courthouse filling out forms relating to black lung. I have spent many an hour talking to the survivors and talking to coal miners who are suffering from black lung because there were not adequate safety measures."
"And I'm telling you," Gore says, "I will never rest until we have justice for those who have been denied benefits."
It sounds like the kind of story Republicans would like to cast doubt upon, and indeed the Bush campaign immediately began referring to Gore's work on the issue as a "claim." Fortunately for Gore, Circuit Judge John Maddux, Gore's former district administrative director in Tennessee from January 1977 until 1984, points out that he accompanied Gore to almost all of his first 1,000 open meetings, and attests to the time the young congressman spent dealing with miners suffering from black lung disease.
In Grundy County in particular, at the Tracy City City Hall, Gore's staff would schedule extra time for the congressman because of all the black lung sufferers trying to get their checks. (Roberts says for every 100 coal miners who applied for black lung disability payments, only seven ever received them.) Gore's meeting would be held in an office on the second floor, but the building didn't have an elevator, Maddux says, so all the miners with black lung, with their portable oxygen tanks, couldn't make it up the stairs. Gore would meet them in the hallways downstairs.
"He would help them any way he could," Maddux says. "When he would meet them it was like there was nobody else in the world other than that person. He had a lot of empathy." And yes, Maddux says, "He would fill out forms, and he'd get me to fill out forms."
Gore's TV ads don't tell this story, however -- which you'd think the DNC would have drilled into the heads of West Virginians by now. But time is running out, so Gore's going negative.
One Democratic National Committee TV ad tells the state's disproportionate population of seniors that Bush is promising $1 trillion of their Social Security money to both them and younger Americans. Another points out to the more working class Mountaineers that Bush supports a state's right to veto a federal minimum wage increase.
Then there's the new TV ad, unveiled Sunday by Gore's campaign itself, which adds to the "misleading advertisements on the TV screen" with one of Gore's own. Slamming Bush as a candidate who would "make things worse for West Virginia," it points out that Bush's "hand-picked running make, Dick Cheney, voted against black lung benefits for West Virginians. Eighteen times."
Cheney, a fiscal conservative during his House days of massive deficits, actually voted 18 times against omnibus Health and Human Services Appropriations bills -- which contained a line item that included the black lung provision.
That, of course, doesn't stop Rockefeller from repeating the claim on the stump, describing the GOP ticket as "a big oil guy from Texas ... (and a) running mate who voted against black lung benefits, to cut them, 18 times. I mean you gotta really hate coal miners to do that."
Even if the politics isn't, at least the coal in this state might someday be clean.