Why Romney Is Polishing Energy’s Apple

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On Tuesday night in Dallas, Mitt Romney made one thing clear: he was not “just polishing the apple for T. Boone Pickens here,” he said, when he began his policy remarks at a fundraiser with Pickens, an oil and gas investor, by talking about energy.

The truth is, as Romney pointed out, he almost always starts talking policy by focusing on energy, whether or not he has an audience of energy executives. And it’s his condemnation of President Obama on the topic that often gets him the loudest applause. Romney knocks Obama for enacting air-pollution regulations that hurt coal miners, for not opening public lands quickly enough to drilling and for not approving the Keystone Pipeline. Such rhetoric has long been standard for Republican campaigns. Even the GOP’s 2008 candidate, John McCain, who supported climate-change legislation, chanted “Drill, baby, drill” on the trail.

But there is reason to think this year is different. Unlike McCain, Romney has more fully embraced the policy agenda of the fossil-fuel industry, and in a campaign that may come down to a question of fundraising, the fossil-fuel industry is coming out big for Romney.

In the Oct. 1 issue of TIME, I have a story looking at this outpouring of support. Large coal and oil companies and their executives are major funders of the outside spending groups working to defeat Obama. Many other groups, like the American Petroleum Institute, are funding expensive issue advertising campaigns that make no mention of the election but urge voters to vote for more domestic oil and gas production.

In Ohio, this support is particularly notable in the form of Robert E. Murray, a colorful coal-company executive who has made defeating Obama a personal and professional goal. A sign outside one of his mines the length of a hopper car reads “Fire Obama,” and his workers were organized by a manager in May to protest a Joe Biden event in hard hats. In August, when Romney came through town, Murray closed his mines and asked his workers to attend a rally, which now features prominently in two new ads the campaign has released. Murray doesn’t hold back. As he told me, “Bear-ick Obama is the greatest enemy that these regions of the country have.” He tends to mispronounce the President’s first name.

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On Tuesday, Alpha Natural Resources, a Virginia coal firm that has given to anti-Obama groups, announced 1,200 layoffs and the closure of at least eight mines. The Romney campaign quickly pounced. “For four years, President Obama has waged a war on coal that has devastated the middle class and American workers,” said Ryan Williams, a campaign spokesman. The causes for the Alpha layoffs, and for Murray’s concern, are complex: a soft economy, softening international markets, record-low natural-gas prices and new regulatory hurdles. But the potential to move votes in two key swing states — Virginia and Ohio — is very real.

In August, Obama started playing defense in Murray’s southeastern Ohio neighborhood with a radio ad that pointed to the increase in local coal production over the past few years and Romney’s coal-bashing rhetoric from his days as governor of Massachusetts. But Democratic concern remains.

One of the oft unstated facts of the energy debate is that it pits regions against each other. What was a boon for Obama in 2007 and ’08 — talking about green energy in ethanol- and wind-rich Iowa — can be a drag in Ohio and Virginia, which were less crucial in the high-flying days of ’08. So when Romney talks about energy, he’s not just playing the room. He’s talking about an issue that could have a major impact on the election.

MORE: War on Coal: Why Polluting Plants Are Shutting Down Nationwide