Elkins, West Virginia

DICK KIMBLER is about as loyal a Democrat as you'll find. A 63-year-old coal miner from Sharples, West Virginia, and president of Local 2935 of the United Mine Workers, he's never voted Republican in a presidential election -- not even when George McGovern was the Democratic nominee. But on October 2, when George W. Bush came to Huntington, West Virginia, for a rally on the banks of the Ohio River, Kimbler introduced the Texas governor to the energized crowd of 1,500. In his brief remarks, he said there was a simple reason why he'd decided to support Bush: "The Democratic administration shut my mine down." The 50 coal miners flanking Kimbler on the stage and the hundreds in the crowd bellowed in agreement.

Kimbler's defection illuminates one of the most surprising developments in this year's presidential campaign: Bush has an excellent chance to win West Virginia, a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one. The most recent statewide poll, conducted for the Charleston Gazette, showed Bush leading Al Gore by two points. Bush's coattails might even be decisive in an open congressional seat, where the Republican, Shelley Moore Capito, is only narrowly trailing Democrat Jim Humphreys even though he's spent more than $ 6 million on the race.

Local officials say there are a number of reasons why Bush is competitive in West Virginia, but one stands out: Al Gore's ideas about environmental regulation. The implementation of these ideas would, by all accounts, harm West Virginia's coal industry. The Kyoto treaty, for example, which Gore champions, would require the United States to dramatically scale back carbon-dioxide emissions to ward off global warming. And according to a recent study by West Virginia University's College of Business and Economics, the treaty would mean a 25 percent reduction in coal production over 10 years, and nearly 43,000 jobs lost.

Democrats respond that this is hype. They cite Gore's endorsement by the United Mine Workers of America, which has 40,000 members in West Virginia. Yet the UMWA was the last major union to endorse Gore, on September 20, and it acted only after extracting written promises from him about protecting coal miners. The union's long-time president, Cecil Roberts, wrote recently in the Charleston Gazette that "some of [Gore's] environmental positions have smacked America's coal miners right in the face."

This fear of Gore among West Virginians has prompted Bush's campaign to devote significant resources to the state. Television ads have been running since Labor Day. Bush spoke at a rally in Charleston, the state capital, en route to the Republican national convention, and he mentioned his trip to West Virginia's "coal country" in the first presidential debate. Two visits from a presidential candidate may not seem like much, but according to Ken Hechler, the Democratic secretary of state and a political fixture, more attention has been lavished on West Virginia in this presidential campaign than in any since John F. Kennedy's victorious primary battle in 1960. That matters in a state usually overlooked in the general election -- Gore hasn't even campaigned in West Virginia. A number of local elected officials told me Bush's visits would win him considerable support. "He's made West Virginians feel special," says Vic Sprouse, Republican leader in the state Senate.

Bush will need all the help he can get in a state whose political history works against him. No non-incumbent GOP candidate for president has carried West Virginia since Herbert Hoover in 1928 (Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan won the state in their bids for reelection). Similarly, just six Republicans have been elected to statewide positions since 1932. And as recently as 1992, the 34-member state Senate had a single Republican; today it has 5.

Yet the climate is not uniformly hostile. Many West Virginia Democrats are cultural conservatives. (I attended a Democratic rally that began with the pledge of allegiance and a prayer.) And, traditionally poor, the state has seen few benefits of the economic boom. It still has the nation's highest unemployment rate (5 percent), second lowest per-capita income ($ 19,362), and third lowest percentage of households with computers (28.4 percent). Even some modern homes still use rotary-dial telephones, while fast-food restaurants advertise "picture menus" for the illiterate.

The state's economic sluggishness is particularly pronounced in Weirton, a town of 22,000 in the northern panhandle. The local steel mill used to be the state's largest private-sector employer (now it's Wal-Mart). But Weirton experienced massive layoffs following a surge of steel imports from Russia, Brazil, and Japan. There were already problems in 1992, prompting Bill Clinton and Gore to visit the town in the heady days following their nomination. Clinton promised to slow the steel imports, but locals say he welshed on that promise. And Gore is paying the price. The heavily Democratic steel-workers' union has endorsed Pat Buchanan. Its president, Mark Glyptis, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer recently, "If [Gore] were to come to Weirton, I would personally throw him out of town."

This anti-Gore sentiment helps Bush, but also Capito, the Republican candidate for Congress. Like the presidential contest in West Virginia, her race is mostly a referendum on the Democrat. But Humphreys, unlike Gore, is not being targeted for any ideological heresy. Instead, he's criticized for his profligate spending, his ethics, and his bombastic manner.

A trial lawyer who enriched himself through asbestos litigation, Humphreys spent more than $ 3 million in the Democratic primary (a huge outlay in a state where advertising rates are just about the lowest in the country). Humphreys's money also enabled him to traverse the 350-mile-long district in his private plane -- a big bonus in a state with few highways. He won the primary easily against an early favorite, the venerable Ken Hechler, who represented another West Virginia congressional district from 1959 to 1977.

There's been some talk of a backlash against Humphreys for trying to buy the election, but his real problems lie elsewhere. A lot of people just don't like him. His hectoring style, effective in the courtroom, is grating on the stump. When I asked him about Gore's environmental policies, he heatedly denied that they were a liability. This refusal to concede the obvious may be what motivated the editors of the Glenville Democrat, a weekly paper in the district, to write that they found Humphreys "pompous, overbearing, condescending, and conceited." More recently, the Democratic-leaning Charleston Gazette called him "pitiful" for running an ad that misrepresented Capito's stance on a patients' bill of rights.

A one-time aide to Ralph Nader, Humphreys poses as a conventional liberal, quickly turning every question back to the need for more education spending (he wants a million new teachers), a patients' bill of rights, and prescription-drug coverage under Medicare (an easy call in a state where the median age is 39, the highest in the country). But he's off the Democratic reservation on a few issues. He opposes the McCain-Feingold campaign-reform proposal, and he's against gun control.

Having trimmed his views to suit the district and poured millions into his campaign coffers, he ought to hold a commanding lead. One reason he doesn't is Capito. Though a Republican in a heavily Democratic district, she is a respected state representative and the daughter of a former West Virginia governor, Arch Moore. She's attracted enough funding to air television ads highlighting some blots on Humphreys's record in politics (spotty attendance in the legislature) and business (three tax liens). The ads have had an impact. Even though he got an eleven-month head start on advertising, a recent poll shows the race remains close, with 28 percent of the district still undecided.

No Republican has represented West Virginia in Congress since 1983, and contested congressional races here "are almost as rare as solar eclipses," the Charleston Daily Mail wrote recently. So the GOP is cheered by Capito's showing. And Bush's. A year ago, no one was predicting West Virginia would be fertile territory for Republican candidates. That it is suggests the GOP is doing something right -- and may be rewarded for it on Election Day.

Matthew Rees is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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