(CNSNews.com) - Given the razor-thin margin by which George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, no state, even one with only five electoral votes, can be taken for granted in a re-election strategy. West Virginia is definitely on the map for the president and his political advisers.
Until Bush won West Virginia in the 2000 election, no Republican presidential candidate had won the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. To keep the support of voters in the conservative but heavily Democratic and unionized state, which Bush won 52 to 46 percent, he is using a combination of frequent personal appearances, steel tariffs, attention to mine safety issues and flexible regulatory policy on pollutants from coal.
This strategy will help Bush in 2004, according to Robert Rupp, a political scientist at West Virginia Wesleyan University.
"Coal in this state is still symbolically important," said Rupp. "And for the president to pay special attention to this shows me a sophistication in his strategy."
The administration has launched reviews of mine safety nationwide and, on Jan. 22, reacted swiftly to a fatal mine explosion at the McElroy Mine in Moundsville, W.Va.
Bush's environmental policies, especially those on coal, are "far more consonant with the state's desires than the Democratic party's," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
"The same is true on guns and abortion," he added.
While the mining industry in West Virginia is not the powerhouse employer it once was, the Bush administration has pleased the mining industry by allowing coal companies to mine mountaintops, exempting mountaintop mining from certain Clean Water Act regulations and exempting some utilities from controversial "New Source Review" rules, which require that new equipment meet pollution standards.
Such moves have angered environmentalists, but administration officials cite policy reasons as the basis for such decisions.
John H. McCutcheon II, a West Virginian appointed to a senior policy post in the Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy, told the Charleston Gazette last year that he was "going to continue to do everything [he] can to make sure that regulations that affect the coal industry are based on sound science."
But the president's West Virginia strategy faces potential trouble from high unemployment and an environmental policy that may backfire.
"Bush's Achilles Heel in West Virginia, and the nation, is the economy," Sabato explained. "A high unemployment rate in the state would probably kill Bush's chances of carrying it again."
And Marlo Lewis, an analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, warns Bush could still trip up on coal policy.
"There are some things the Bush administration is doing which are really anti-coal, and politically, it is impossible to explain this in terms of West Virginia," said Lewis.
Specifically, Bush has revived a plan devised by Connecticut Senator/2000 Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee Joseph Lieberman and the late Rhode Island Republican Senator John Chafee, a plan that would award regulatory credits to businesses that make voluntary reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
"This is really a centerpiece of Bush's climate policy," said Lewis. "What this will do if this is implemented [is] create a gigantic business lobby for Kyoto-type cap-and-trade programs...which would beat the hell out of coal.
"When you offer a credit for reducing your emissions of carbon dioxide, the credit is worth almost nothing until and unless you actually put a cap on CO2 emissions until you have a Kyoto-type scheme," Lewis explained. "And then, the credit is worth tremendous amounts of money." Under such an arrangement, companies with excess credits could sell them on the open market to companies that want to exceed their own allotment of emissions.
A Democratic candidate could prevail in 2004 by portraying himself as a moderate, Rupp said.
"First, they (Democrats) could nominate someone with a better personality than Gore," said Rupp, "which I think they're looking for." Rupp suggested someone like North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
Democrats could also appeal to West Virginians' sense of patriotism and court them on social conservative issues, he added. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, as a Vietnam veteran, could take the patriotic helm, Rupp said.
"And they've already backtracked on a lot of the gun issues," said Rupp, "although the primary may push them toward the left."
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