Mitt Romney and the U.S. coal industry are engaged in a very public love affair. In August, the Republican candidate stood on a stage in Ohio and condemned Barack Obama's "war on coal," backed by a group of beefy, safety-helmeted men who looked like they just stomped out of a coal mine. Those miners later appeared in one of Romney's two September ads focused on coal, the "way of life" that, in his telling, Obama is ruthlessly attempting to crush.
"By the way," Romney said in his first debate with Obama, lest America miss the point, "I like coal!"
That was Oct. 3. On Oct. 4, coal stocks soared. On Friday, Romney was in Abingdon, Virginia, holding a "Coal Country" rally, proclaiming, "I don't believe in putting our coal under the ground forever." (Was that one of Obama's shovel-ready projects?)
If it feels like he's trying too hard, it's probably because Romney is not a natural fit for the industry's affections. When he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed a climate change plan, supported clean-energy startups, and famously went after a coal plant that was shirking pollution controls, saying, "I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant kills people." (In one of its most cynical maneuvers, the Obama campaign has run ads attacking Romney for making this eminently defensible point.)
Now, however, Romney needs coal's love, and badly. Coal jobs and cheap coal electricity are important to several of the swing states upon which the election hinges, most especially Ohio, which may single-handedly decide the race. It's not enough for coal fans to be upset with Obama; Romney needs them actively working on his behalf.
It doesn't come easy to him -- Romney isn't exactly known for his easy rapport with the working class. Remember those miners on stage in Ohio? It turns out that they were forced to attend the rally, without pay, and aren't very happy about it. And for all that environmental regulations have turned the United Mine Workers of America against Obama this year, they aren't endorsing Romney either. The union is sitting this one out.
Nonetheless, where it counts -- in board rooms and executive suites -- Romney is being richly rewarded for his support. The boss who forced his miners to attend Romney's rally, CEO Robert Murray of Murray Energy, hosted a $1.7 million fundraiser for the candidate in May and has apparently been bullying his employees into contributing to his anti-Obama PAC, prompting a complaint to the SEC.