President Obama visits the Heil family farm in Iowa, which grows corn and… (Carolyn Kaster, Associated…)
OSKALOOSA, Iowa — President Obama visited an Iowa farm Tuesday where a family grows corn and soybeans while also generating wind energy with several turbines on their 1,000 acres. Republican Mitt Romney spent time at an Ohio coal mine, speaking in front of hard-hat-wearing workers whose livelihood depends on continued demand for their often-maligned product.
In grand terms, the fight between Obama and Romney over energy policy centers on the role of federal regulators in protecting public health and promoting particular industries for the good of the country.
Obama has pressed for newer technologies such as wind and solar, arguing that they create a path away from dependence on foreign energy supplies. Romney says the same goal should be accomplished by increasing the use of oil, coal and natural gas reserves.
But in the fierce campaign for the two hotly contested states, where a few thousand votes could mean the difference in November's presidential election, their ideology has given way to a more basic consideration: local jobs.
Speaking in a verdant Appalachian valley dotted with coal mines, Romney said Obama was "waging a war on coal" that was bad for such communities.
"We have 250 years of coal; why in the heck wouldn't we use it?" Romney said, speaking in front of miners who roared in approval. "We're going to take advantage of our energy resources to save your jobs, to create more jobs."
Obama countered with a similar appeal to a crowd in rural Iowa, not far from the Heil family soy, corn and wind farm. Jobs dried up when a nearby Maytag plant closed, Obama said, but "folks are now back to work" manufacturing wind turbines.
"The wind industry now supports 7,000 jobs here in Iowa," Obama said. "These are good jobs, and they're a source of pride that we need to fight for."
For days now, the campaigns have been trading critiques of one another's records and visions for U.S. energy policy.
Obama criticizes Romney for supporting subsidies for oil companies while opposing extending tax credits for companies that harness the power of wind, a rapidly developing technology that Obama sees as an industry of the future.
Romney's campaign has made it clear that he would let the tax credit expire, believing that government shouldn't get involved in propping up individual industries or supporting one over another.
Even though Obama has professed an "all of the above" energy strategy — one that values all domestic sources — the coal industry says his administration's environmental policies target its production.
Many of those regulations have occurred under court order. The number of coal jobs is at a two-decade high, according to industry analysts. But utilities and producers say federal rules limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic substances for coal-burning power plants are threatening the industry. Some producers say they are laying off employees because of uncertainty about the future.
And that's where the campaigns find an opportunity to pivot from ideology to employment.
Rep.Paul D. Ryan, Romney's newly picked running mate, focused on the regulations promulgated by the Obama administration during a Tuesday appearance in Lakewood, Colo.
"President Obama has done all that he can to make it harder for us to use our own energy," the Wisconsin congressman told foot-stomping supporters in a high school gym. "We will streamline the regulations, we will open up these resources so that we can create jobs here."
Speaking in Oskaloosa, Iowa, Obama criticized Romney for defending the importance of domestic oil and gas production.
Alternative forms of energy like wind and solar are great, Romney said last spring, but they don't power cars. "You can't drive a car with a windmill on it," Romney said then.
With the farm crowd in central Iowa on Tuesday, Obama replied to that philosophical argument with a practical one.
" 'You can't drive a car with a windmill on it' — that's what he said about wind power," Obama said. "But if he wants to learn something about wind, all he has got to do is pay attention to what you've been doing here in Iowa."
At the Romney rally in Beallsville, in eastern Ohio, displeasure with Obama's energy policy was palpable, from signs nearby that read "Save Eastern Ohio. Fire Obama" to GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel's fiery remarks.
Liberals, Obama and other Democrats, Mandel said, "think coal is a four-letter word. I tell you this afternoon, for any of these folks trying to stand between us and affordable, reliable energy, we have four words for them: 'Over our dead bodies!' "
Like Iowa, Ohio is a crucial battleground state that Obama won in 2008 and Romney hopes to claim. Romney's appearance here was not only an appeal to voters whose families have worked in the industry for generations, but to working-class voters who supported Obama four years ago but are frustrated by his tenure.
"Your success and your hard work helps you and your families but it also helps America. I salute you," Romney said. "I appreciate the work you're doing, and if I'm president of the United States, I will do everything in my power to make sure you keep good jobs and good wages."
Parsons reported from Oskaloosa and Mehta from Beallsville, Ohio. Times staff writer Alana Semuels in Lakewood, Colo., contributed to this report.