W.Va. Gov. Tomblin keeping Obama at arms' length

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By LAWRENCE MESSINA, Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin joined U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin on Wednesday in the list of top West Virginia Democratic officeholders keeping their distance from President Barack Obama, saying that neither the Democratic incumbent nor the presumed Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has earned his vote.

Tomblin faulted Romney for "supporting policies that will end Medicare and Social Security as we know it," echoing a Democratic attack on the former Massachusetts governor.

"His policies will put more burdens on West Virginia families who are simply trying to make ends meet," Tomblin said.

But Tomblin also continued his repeated criticisms of Obama's approach to coal-related issues. West Virginia is the nation's second-biggest producer of this fossil fuel. The administration believes that burning coal is hurting the environment by releasing carbon dioxide and the latest evidence shows that process is linked to climate change. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, has repeatedly sparred with the mining industry Clean Water Act-related permits.

"President Obama has apparently made it his mission to drive the backbone of West Virginia's economy, coal and the energy industry, out of business," said Tomblin, who hails from mining-reliant Logan County. "That will not only hurt thousands of West Virginia families, it will destroy the economic fabric of our state."

Manchin has taken a similar stance as Obama, who is unpopular in the state, seeks a second term. Also a frequent critic of the president regarding coal, Manchin sued Obama's EPA while he was as governor. Tomblin, who succeeded Manchin, has continued to pursue that federal lawsuit.

"I strongly believe that every American should always be rooting for our president to do well, no matter which political party that he or she might belong to. With that being said, many West Virginians believe the last three and a half years haven't been good for us, but we're hopeful that they can get better," Manchin said in a statement last month. He also said, "I have some real differences with both Gov. Romney and the president, as I have said many times."

The latest statements from Tomblin and Manchin are in keeping with their previous comments about the president. Though Democrats continue to outnumber Republicans in West Virginia by close to 2-to-1, the state twice went with President George W. Bush and voted for John McCain over Obama in 2008. Obama also lost handily to Hillary Clinton in West Virginia's Democratic primary that year. Most political observers have listed the state solidly in the red column in this year's presidential contest.

Republicans sought without success to tie Obama to Manchin before the popular two-term governor won a 2010 special election to complete the late Robert C. Byrd's term in the Senate. Tomblin then narrowly won the resulting special election the following year for Manchin's unexpired term as governor, after GOP attempts to link Tomblin to the president.

With Obama atop the ballot again, Republicans have renewed this angle of attack in earnest. Both Tomblin and Manchin are up for re-election this year, and face low-profile challengers in the state's May 8 primary.

"The Democrat leadership in our state lacks the courage to stand up to the national Democratic Party even though Earl Ray admits the policies of the Democratic Party will destroy our state," said state GOP Chairman Mike Stuart, who recently endorsed Romney for president.

Stuart's Democratic counterpart, Larry Puccio, said he is supporting his party's ticket "from top to bottom." But he also praised Tomblin and Manchin for pressing their issues with Obama. Besides coal, Manchin has also sparred with the White House over the budget, the spending deficit and reducing the federal debt.

"I am pleased that they will continue to call on the president and his administration, to allow them to know that they need to deal with these issues in order to make West Virginia a better place to live," Puccio told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Puccio also cited recent polling that suggested that while Obama trails Romney in West Virginia, Manchin and Tomblin are leading their presumed Republican opponents by comfortable margins.

"The people of West Virginia have a great deal of faith in Sen. Manchin and Gov. Tomblin, and they know that these two men have done a great job leading West Virginia," Puccio said.

Puccio also held out hope that West Virginia voters will see Romney as out of touch. Manchin said he already views Romney that way "especially because of his plan to end Medicare as we know it and privatize Social Security."

Romney has proposed subsidies to help future retirees buy private insurance or let them choose traditional Medicare, with a gradually increasing age to qualify for benefits. As for Social Security, Romney has said he would keep the program as-is for people 55 and over but would raise the retirement age for full benefits for the next generations of retirees by one or two years and reduce inflation increases in benefits for wealthier recipients.

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