CLARKSBURG, W.Va. - This is the kind of community that vice presidential candidates come to know very well - not exactly a top-30 television market, but one with enough potential for a political dividend to justify an hour or two on the daily campaign schedule.
The only thing noteworthy about Dick Cheney's campaign stop here yesterday was that he is the Republican candidate for vice president and this is West Virginia, for several generations one of the most solid bastions of the Democratic Party. The message, understood by politicians of both parties here, is that this year, George W. Bush has a strong chance of winning.
And though the prize is only five electoral votes, there is a broad consensus in the West Virginia political community that the Nov. 7 result is likely to be extremely close.
No stone unturned
"We are taking nothing for granted," Cheney told his audience of perhaps 400, many of them high school students, who greeted him warmly at a rally at Precision Coil Inc., a steel-fabricating plant.
This had already been made clear. Bush has been here twice, and may make one more stop in the state before it is over. With some unpublished polls showing that the Republican nominee has moved from essentially even to slightly ahead in the state, Democratic leaders in Charleston, the capital, are imploring Vice President Al Gore to visit at least once.
The Democrats had reasons for confidence at the outset. As Bill Phillips of Elkins, the Bush chairman in the state, likes to point out, no Republican presidential candidate has ever carried West Virginia except as an incumbent president running for re-election.
The state has been Democratic enough to vote for Adlai E. Stevenson Jr. over Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, for Hubert H. Humphrey over Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and for Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan in 1980. West Virginia even supported Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.
The state has a Republican governor now, but Cecil Underwood was elected four years ago only after the Democratic Party was convulsed by dissension. Underwood, 74, has been seen as extremely vulnerable this year to the challenge of Rep. Bob Wise, though the weakness of Gore has made some Democrats uneasy.
Cheney's foray here was perfunctory. He kept the crowd waiting for more than 90 minutes. A thick fog had settled over the mountains and down into the hollows in the morning, delaying planes and causing a pileup on one of the interstate highways that snarled traffic in all directions.
The Cheney message
Once he arrived, he showed that his campaign style has evolved. Though no one would mistake him for a latter-day William Jennings Bryan, the one-time secretary of defense is now relaxed enough to gently needle Gore.
He drew laughter by referring to the Democratic nominee as Goldilocks in response to Gore's assertion that he had been too hot in the first debate, too cold in the second but "just right" in the third this week.
The vice presidential nominee's principal task, however, is to deal with the ticket's potential vulnerabilities, which he does in every speech by reassuring Americans of Bush's commitment to protecting Social Security and to enriching the Medicare program with prescription drug coverage.
Social Security is, of course, the issue the Democrats have used to great advantage in one election after another, particularly in states such as this one that have many elderly retirees of limited means.
"They are back to the old scare tactics I've seen in the 22 years since I became involved in politics," the former Wyoming congressman said.
Cheney also plays on his Cabinet background by reinforcing Bush's pledge to strengthen the armed forces significantly - an initiative that poll-takers say can find a hospitable audience in West Virginia, with its reputation for support for the military.
But, meeting briefly with reporters after the rally, he declined to say anything that might be construed as criticism of the decisions that led to the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.
Tepid support for Gore
The sudden emergence of West Virginia as a battleground state is not entirely a product of the voters' enthusiasm for Bush and Cheney. Some of it can be traced to Gore.
For one thing, the vice president's identification with environmental issues has made him a hard sell, especially in the coal counties in the southern part of the state where there is so much focus on the controversy over mountaintop removal and what it could mean in terms of jobs.
Gore finally gained the endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America, and a few UMWA pickets waved signs at Cheney's motorcade here. But there have been signals that support for Gore is tepid.
The Democratic nominee also suffers because he is an outspoken voice for gun control in a state in which hunting is an important part of the culture.
Nonetheless, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 2-to-1, and there is a long tradition of Democratic politicians - the late Sen. Jennings Randolph, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV and, above all, Sen. Robert C. Byrd - delivering the federal largess. But interest in the presidential campaign is hardly approaching a fever pitch.
"Right now," said a printer who described himself as both undecided and uninterested. "I'm more interested in the [West Virginia University] Mountaineers beating Notre Dame Saturday. It's on national TV."