Hank Hayes photo.
ABINGDON, Va. — GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney mined Southwest Virginia for votes during a Friday rally showcasing his support for the region’s coal industry.
Standing before more than 3,000 supporters in an outdoor gravel lot framed by heavy earth-moving equipment, Romney said incumbent President Barack Obama is living up to a 2008 pledge to bankrupt those wanting to build new coal-fired power plants.
"I don’t believe in putting our coal under ground forever," Romney said at Carter Machinery Co., a Caterpillar dealer. "I believe we should take advantage of it, and put good workers back to work...It’s abundant and cheap and can be burned in a clean way."
In the clear blue skies above the rally, a small airplane pulled a banner saying: "Virginia Coal Counts On Mitt Romney."
Security officials said Romney supporters began showing up as early as 5 a.m. to get into the event.
Introducing Romney to the crowd was Alpha Natural Resources CEO Kevin Crutchfield, who last month announced the company will trim its 13,100-member workforce by 1,200 positions and idle eight coal mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Crutchfield, a Romney campaign contributor, said Environmental Protection Agency regulations on coal have cost Southwest Virginia thousands of high-paying jobs.
"I want a president whose energy policy isn’t based on hand picking winners and hand picking losers," Crutchfield told the crowd. "I want a president who understands we need all of the above and actually means that and knows that coal has and will continue to fuel American progress."
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported last April that power generation from natural gas-fired plants is virtually equal with coal-fired plants, with each fuel having 32 percent market share.
While supporting coal, Romney also advocated developing all energy resources to make America energy independent within eight years.
"If we’re really serious about energy, we should take advantage of the energy resources we have...We could create three and a half to four million jobs," Romney said.
Romney also talked up his plan to trim federal spending without cutting defense spending or raising taxes.
"I’m going to cut out programs we absolutely don’t have to have...I’m going to make sure some programs go back to the states where they could be run more efficiently and effectively," he promised. "I’m going to get rid of Obamacare (the federal health care reform law)...we can’t afford it."
A mascot dressed up as Big Bird was at the rally to remind people of Romney’s pledge to cut federal funding for public broadcasting.
Romney made that pledge during his aggressive presidential debate performance on Wednesday.
"I wanted to ask the president why it was when America needed jobs so badly, he was pushing Obamacare? I got a chance to ask him why 23 million Americans are out of work or stopped looking for work," Romney said of the debate. "...People in the middle class have been squeezed, they have been buried as the vice president (Joe Biden) said...(Obama is) cutting $716 billion out of Medicare...He’s in favor of a tax plan that will kill 700,000 jobs.
"What he described was, in my view, a reiteration of the status quo. He’s going to keep doing the things he’s done in the past, like the stimulus if he can..He’s going to pick more winners and losers...A friend of mine said, ‘No he just picks losers.’"
A Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of likely Virginia voters — taken one night after the debate — showed Romney earning 49 percent support to Obama’s 48 percent with three percent undecided.
U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith insisted Romney’s Abingdon appearance should shore up his support in Southwest Virginia.
"I think most folks who support coal understand we have to have a Republican Senate and Republican president, or Obama will win the war on coal if we don’t win in November," Griffith, R-Va., said.
The Obama campaign has been running a TV ad indicating Romney opposed a coal-fired plant while he served as Massachusetts governor.
"If Mitt Romney came out and said he wanted free ice cream for everybody, two days later they would have an ad up that said ‘Mitt Romney wants your children to be obese,’" Griffith joked.