Correction appended Sept. 28, 2012
Ohio coal miner Robert E. Murray, 72, is still wearing oversize steel-toe boots and a shirt that reads BOB over his heart when he mispronounces President Obama's name for the third time. Coming from one of the nation's top-producing coal executives, the heavy accent is no accident. "I say Bear-ick Obama because I never heard the word Barack before," he explains. "My wife keeps telling me, 'It's Barack.' O.K., Barack. It's Barack. To me, it's Bear-ick."
To the 1,600 coal miners Murray employs in Ohio, to the reporters he meets, to the Republican politicians he supports with millions of dollars in fundraising and to just about anyone else who listens, his complaint is the same: Obama is trying to destroy the U.S. coal industry. "Bear-ick Obama is the greatest enemy that these regions of the country have," Murray says from his office overlooking the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio. "If we give Obama a second term, I can't keep it together."
Such predictions would matter less if his firm, Murray Energy Corp., which shuttles millions of tons of coal a year onto river barges destined for nearby power stations, operated in another state. But in every presidential election since 1964, whoever won Ohio also won the White House, a record that looks likely to be extended this year. So for Murray, who sat out the 2008 race because he felt little love for John McCain's energy policies, defeating Obama has become something of a crusade. "This is permanent destruction to America," he says about the Administration's approach to coal. "Obama ain't heard the last from guys like me."
Murray may be Obama's biggest headache in a state where he leads by about 4 points. At the front gate of one of his three mines in Ohio, a plant foreman has hung a FIRE OBAMA banner the length of a hopper car. When Vice President Joe Biden visited the county in May, Murray's general manager recruited teams off the graveyard shift to protest in their hard hats. And when Mitt Romney came through in mid-August, Murray closed his mines and told his employees to attend a Romney rally, at which Murray provided hot dogs, soda pop and a magician to entertain their kids. "I tell you, you've got a great boss," Romney told the miners after riding in from the airport with Murray.
The battle over the U.S.'s energy future is one of the clearest choices presented to voters in the 2012 campaign. In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama dismissed oil companies as purveyors of "yesterday's energy." Now many of those same companies have joined with the nation's coal magnates to pour money and ground troops into the election, determined to make Obama yesterday's President. Industry ads promoting coal, oil and gas and often attacking Obama's vaunted clean energy as a boondoggle have filled the airwaves in swing states. And some of the biggest names in the business have been getting off the sidelines to take a public stand against the President.