WV - Where Kerry Is Trying to Avoid Gore's Pitfalls

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Published: October 13, 2004

Article originally published at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/13/politics/campaign/13state.html

WV MapCHARLESTON, W.Va. - This state's Democratic roots run as deep as its coal mines. Retirees still speak reverently about the New Deal. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one. And since 1928, only four Republicans have won its electoral votes. Three were incumbents riding national landslides.

The fourth was George W. Bush. But was his upset victory over Vice President Al Gore here an aberration, as Democrats contend, or the start of a new era, as Republican contend? The answer may depend on voters like Roy Blevins, 57, a union coal miner from southwestern West Virginia.

Mr. Blevins, a registered Democrat, said he considered Mr. Gore an anticoal "tree hugger" and did not vote in 2000. But the strip mine where he works closed this year, leaving him unemployed. Now he is helping the Democrats, distributing leaflets that say Senator John Kerry will promote antipollution technology so that factories can keep burning West Virginia coal.

"I think Kerry will be for coal," he said.

Democrats say voters like Mr. Blevins, worried about health care costs, pension failures and employment losses nearly as deep as in neighboring Ohio, could return West Virginia and its five electoral votes to the Democratic fold next month.

As a result, they have mounted the type of aggressive well-financed campaign that Mr. Gore failed to run. He virtually ignored the state until the final weeks of the race, waiting to rebut attacks against his positions on the environment and gun control until the damage was too deep, Democrats said.

"This campaign is 180 degrees different from 2000," Terri J. Giles, Mr. Kerry's West Virginia campaign director, said.

But Republicans say history - and the influential churches here - are on their side. West Virginians, worried about same-sex marriage, supporting the Iraq war and dismayed with Democrats over gun control and abortion, are inexorably moving into the Republican column, much as voters in the Deep South did two decades ago.

"Our first sea change came in 1932, when F. D. R. ushered in the Democratic stranglehold," Greg Abernathy, executive director of the West Virginia Republican Party, said. "2000 marks a sea change in our direction."

Independent polls last month showed either side could be right. Though Mr. Bush leads by about five points in most polls, that is within the margin of sampling error. He won West Virginia by six points in 2000.

Interviews with voters across the state suggest that although support for him is strong in many areas, broad concerns about the economy and Iraq give Mr. Kerry a fighting chance to win.

Goldie Baly is one of those voices of discontent.

Mrs. Baly, 82, from Weirton, a steel city battered by layoffs, has been a Republican since she cast her first vote in 1942. But she lost her health insurance when her late husband's employer, Weirton Steel, now part of the International Steel Group, filed for bankruptcy protection last year. Now she is thinking about voting for Mr. Kerry.

"I'm a disillusioned Republican," Mrs. Baly said recently as she waited to hear Senator John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in Weirton, a few miles from the sprawling, almost empty steel complex. "All Bush talks about is the war on terror."

Democrats say voters like Mrs. Baly and Mr. Blevins are crucial to Mr. Kerry. In 2000, the coal-rich southwestern region, historically a hotbed of Democratic support, had anemic turnout of less than 40 percent, largely because of concerns about Mr. Gore's positions on coal and guns.

Stronger turnout in the south, combined with anti-Bush sentiment in the northern steel belt, where many voters are angry about Mr. Bush's stand on steel tariffs, could be enough to win the state, they contend. Mr. Bush imposed tariffs on imported steel in March 2002 and lifted them at the end of last year, citing an improving economy and cost cutting by domestic steel makers.

Mark Glyptis, president of the Independent Steelworkers Union, said many mill workers in the northern panhandle voted for Mr. Bush in 2000 out of disgust with the free trade policies of the Clinton administration. The union even backed Patrick J. Buchanan in 2000 in protest. But it has come out enthusiastically for Mr. Kerry this year.

"People feel betrayed," Mr. Glyptis said. "Bush said he would stay the course on tariffs, and then he lifted them."

The Kanawha River Valley around Charleston has also struggled economically, with Dow Chemical, an automobile plant and other companies laying off thousands of workers in just the past year. The toll has been so severe that the long-serving Republican mayor of South Charleston, who is also a presidential elector, recently said he might cast his electoral vote for Mr. Kerry, even if Mr. Bush wins the state.

The mayor, Richie Robb, said he was uneasy about Mr. Bush's policies on tax cuts and Iraq.

"I have admired President Bush's resoluteness," Mr. Robb said. "But at a certain point, I have to wonder whether it is a misguided resolve."

Republicans say that the economy is improving and that Mr. Bush's proposals for tax cuts and limits on lawsuits will create employment. But they acknowledge continuing problems.

"Our unemployment rate is lower than the national figures," said Representative Shelley Moore Capito of Charleston, who edged into office with Mr. Bush in 2000 and now is chairwoman of his state campaign. "But in certain pockets, in certain industries, we're still spinning our tires. And there is a lot of frustration with that."

Republican strategists say cultural issues will trump economic issues, as they did in 2000. And they are counting on three of West Virginia's most potent political forces, the National Rifle Association, the coal industry and conservative churches, to attack Mr. Kerry and deliver the Republican faithful to the polls.

Many Democrats say a series of rip-roaring speeches by Charlton Heston, when he was president of the National Rifle Association, attacking Mr. Gore in 2000 helped turn the tide here toward Mr. Bush late in the campaign. As Election Day nears, the rifle association plans to gear up a similar campaign against Mr. Kerry, using rallies, gun clubs, the Internet and television commercials to paint him as an elitist liberal who wants to restrict gun owners' rights.

"It's an emotional issue here," said Bill Miller, an insurance agent from Beckley who is on the national board of the association. "When people hear that you want to ban assault weapons, as Mr. Kerry does, they say, 'Next they will try to ban my hunting rifle.' ''

The mine workers' union has tried to defuse the gun issue by distributing leaflets featuring Mr. Kerry as a hunter who supports the Second Amendment. The union president, Cecil Roberts, even gave Mr. Kerry a union-made hunting rifle at a Labor Day rally.

The rifle association was quick to say the rifle would have been outlawed under legislation where Mr. Kerry was a co-sponsor. Democrats deny that. But Raymond Fink, 50, an architect from Beckley, has no doubts that the rifle association is correct.

A lifelong Democrat who voted Republican for the first time in 2000, Mr. Fink said, he plans to vote for Mr. Bush again in large part because the president opposes gun control.

"I think the Democrats are out of touch," he said as he strolled in a gun store near Beckley recently. "There's no doubt in my mind that Kerry would ban every gun he could."

Church groups have also become active for Mr. Bush. In recent weeks, ministers have begun urging parishioners to vote for the "moral candidate," which Democrats consider veiled references to Mr. Bush.

Republican mailings have accused liberals of wanting to ban the Bible. And fliers distributed in church parking lots say Mr. Kerry favors "anti-Christian, anti-God, antifamily" judges, same-sex marriage and abortion.

Mr. Kerry says that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but that states should be allowed to decide their rules.

The attacks have clearly affected people like Bill Poston, 47, a printer here. Mr. Poston is upset about the Iraq war and says many of Mr. Bush's domestic policies have been failures. He even likes what Mr. Kerry says about health care. But he is upset about the possibility of same-sex marriage and is convinced that Mr. Bush will be a "more moral leader." "My minister thinks Bush is a very moral person," Mr. Poston said. "He believes he is being led by God."

A major unknown factor in the race is what will be the attitudes of veterans and soldiers' families. West Virginia has a high percentage of veterans, and each campaign has focused intensive advertising on national security issues.

Interviews with voters suggest that West Virginians are far from monolithic in their attitudes on Iraq. Many are behind Mr. Bush. But many also say they have grown uneasy about the conflict's aftermath.

Rodney Kuhn, 54, a miner from Boone County, is a member of the rifle association and a former soldier who voted for Mr. Bush in 2000. But he is deeply anxious about the war and is leaning toward Mr. Kerry.

"It's senseless, and we're losing it," he said, pulling on his helmet as he prepared to go underground. "And they are too proud to say they made a mistake."

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