BLUEFIELD -- Among the millions of wavering voters in the presidential race, the most prominent might be West Virginia's Joe Manchin -- a U.S. senator, a candidate for re-election and a lifelong Democrat who, less than two weeks out, is undecided about whether to support Barack Obama again.
"I don't feel compelled as I did in 2008," he says.
Manchin isn't alone among West Virginia Democrats attempting to separate themselves from the president. The governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, and a prominent congressman, Nick J. Rahall II -- both facing re-election challenges -- have also declined to publicly endorse Obama.
But the spurning of the president by the 65-year-old Manchin, a popular former governor and nowadays his state's chief political luminary, stands out -- in part because of Manchin's intense criticism of the man whom he regularly and affectionately called "Barack" during the 2008 campaign. A federal "war on coal" has harmed West Virginia and united Democratic dissenters against the Obama administration, Manchin declared in an interview last week, observing of the president's electoral fate: "I think he knows he's not going to do well in our state... . And you know what? It's personal. When people lose their jobs, they look at you and ask, 'So, what am I to do?' And they blame him."
Four years ago, before the blaming started, Manchin praised Obama as a worthy partner for coal states, declaring in a CNBC interview, "That's why it's so imperative that Barack becomes the next president." Now Manchin talks about how the Obama administration doesn't reach out to him for discussions on coal issues, and how the president has never called him.
Manchin's supporters point out that elective politics is chiefly about personal survival, with loyalty to another politician always a fluid and fragile thing. Obama, who is thought to be trailing Republican Mitt Romney by more than 20 percentage points in West Virginia, is about as popular here as wind turbines. In 2008, John McCain beat him by 13 points in the state. During this year's West Virginia Democratic primary, a Texas prison inmate received about 41 percent against Obama in a protest vote, with Manchin carefully committing to no one. West Virginia Democratic leaders urging him to support Obama have had their entreaties rebuffed.
Meanwhile, Manchin is seeking to tweak a bit of history. When reminded that he endorsed Obama in 2008 after the eventual president secured the Democratic nomination, he is quick to disagree and clarify, disliking the word "endorsed." "Well, supported him," he says.
Manchin isn't the first senator to consider not supporting his party's nominee. In 2004, for instance, then-Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee, R-R.I., announced that he wasn't planning to vote for President George W. Bush, while Zell Miller of Georgia did not vote for fellow senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee.
In West Virginia, Manchin has a comfortable lead in his race against Republican John Raese. Raese lost to Manchin by about 10 points in a 2010 special election, in which the Democrat captured the seat previously held by the state's late legend Robert C. Byrd. Manchin, who had trailed through much of the campaign, saw his standing soar after running a TV ad in which he aimed a rifle and viewers saw a bullet slicing through a mock-up of an Obama-favored cap-and-trade bill to regulate carbon emissions.
His track record has reflected his streaks of independence from the administration and his party, as well as his mercurial nature, all of it serving to safeguard his maverick image in West Virginia. After indicating support in early 2010 for the Affordable Care Act, which won passage before he entered the Senate, Manchin's perspective, in line with the state's burgeoning anti-Obama sentiment, swiftly evolved to the point where he charged that the law was "overreaching" and in need of reform.
But all other issues here pale next to the question of which candidates will best protect the coal industry. Raese -- who has seized on the unpopularity of Obama here and several regulations from the administration's Environmental Protection Agency that affect the state's coal industry -- speaks at every opportunity about the purported link between Manchin and the president. He hopes to benefit from anti-Obama TV ads running across the state that feature a 2008 recording of then-candidate Obama saying, "If somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can; it's just that it will bankrupt them."
The dispute stretches beyond West Virginia. Coal has emerged as a fierce issue in parts of Ohio and Virginia, two battleground states with communities that are historically reliant on the industry, as well as in Pennsylvania, a state the Romney campaign hopes to keep in play by winning over disgruntled coal workers.
At a rally in Moon Township, Pa., last weekend, Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan repeated that the Obama administration has waged a "war on coal," asserting that more than 100 coal plants had been scheduled to close, at a cost of thousands of jobs.
Data from the government and the coal industry suggest a complicated picture. Although there are more coal jobs now than when Obama took office, overall coal production has fallen slightly, according to industry statistics. Over the past year, a decline in demand for coal has led to layoffs in parts of Appalachia. In West Virginia, 1,300 coal jobs were lost during the past quarter, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Although some administration critics bitterly cite EPA regulations that restrict certain kinds of mining operations and increase operational costs, many industry analysts observe that coal's biggest problem at the moment is the competitive presence of natural gas, which has become a cheaper and increasingly attractive alternative. Technological advances have led some coal-fired plants to switch to natural gas.