By Sara Burnett
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney told a crowd in this northwest Colorado coal community this morning that if elected he will reduce Obama administration regulations that have made mining and oil and gas drilling more difficult, saying he wants "a government that's an ally of business, not an enemy of business."
"You have to have government, you have to have laws, you have to have regulations," Romney told an audience of about 500 gathered in a park in downtown Craig. "But you have to have a government that doesn't get too big and you have to have a government that sees its job -- yes, it's stopping the bad guys from doing bad things, polluting and harming other people -- also you have to have a government that sees its job as encouraging the good guys."
The former Massachusetts governor also said during his roughly 14-minute speech that he won't forget the people of Craig, or other "communities like this across the country that are hurting right now under this president."
Unemployment in Moffat County was about 8.3 percent in April -- higher than the state average, which increased slightly to 7.8 percent last month. But local miners and the mayor of Craig said the local coal industry has been stable, with no layoffs or reduced hours at the local mines or the power plant.
"I think the inverse is true -- that people have gone to work," Craig Mayor Terry Carwile said, adding that he still sees ads for jobs at the local mines.
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call said the issue isn't just limited to Craig, which he agreed has been doing well economically. It's also about an "out-of-control" EPA, Call said, and limitations on oil and gas exploration on Western lands and other Western Colorado communities that haven't fared as well.
"It's not so much the local mines," Call said. "It's Barack Obama's stance on energy overall."
The Obama campaign counters that the president's "all of the above" energy approach includes clean coal, as well as wind, solar, natural gas and other sources renewable energy sources. They also note the president made one of the most significant investments in development of clean coal technologies with $3.4 billion in stimulus funding.
The U.S. gets about 40 percent of its electricity from coal, and Colorado is the nation's ninth leading coal-production state, according to the Colorado Mining Association. Sixty percent of the coal-powered electricity used in Colorado comes from this corner of the state.
The issue is of particular importance to voters in other states that will be key to winning the Nov. 6 election, including Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. That's made it an increasingly popular campaign issue among Republicans in recent weeks, particularly as gas prices have fallen, making Obama's oil and gas policies a less-potent area of attack.
This morning, Peabody Energy, which owns the Twentymile Mine southwest of Steamboat Springs, idled the mine and bused in any workers who wanted to attend. About 200 -- enough to fill four buses -- took them up on it.
Among them was Greg Peterson, 49, of Yampa, who said he believes coal is a safer form of energy than nuclear power, and that he wanted to show his support to a candidate who "supports coal."
"I like the fact he's pro-energy -- pro-American energy," Peterson said.
Craig was an interesting choice for a campaign stop. It's a Republican stronghold with a population of about 10,000, more than four hours from the more heavily populated suburban Denver areas expected to sway the election. But the area has received some extra attention in recent months, thanks to a video featuring local business owners titled "The Perfect Storm Over Craig, Colorado."
The video was produced by Energy for America, a joint initiative of the conservative organizations Americans for Prosperity, the American Energy Alliance and the Institute for Energy Research -- groups that have been spending millions on anti-Obama television ads across the country, including in Colorado.
In it, hotel owners Frank and Kerrie Moe -- who introduced Romney at this morning's event -- discuss how decreased production at the coal plant has hurt their business, forcing them to lay off two longtime employees -- the first cuts they were forced to do in 15 years.
It was Frank Moe who sent an invitation -- along with the video -- to Romney, inviting him to visit Craig.
While the policies mentioned in the video include two state laws -- issues that aren't decided by the president no matter who's in office -- Frank Moe said he believes a Romney administration could have some influence.
"I think he's got the ability to lay out the entire picture," he said.
A local historian told the Craig Daily Press it's the first time a presidential candidate has made a campaign stop in Craig, though Franklin Delano Roosevelt did stay in a local hotel -- now a restaurant located next door to the park where Romney spoke -- before he was appointed assistant to the Secretary of the Navy in 1913.
The visit was Romney's lone Colorado stop before he heads to Las Vegas, where he will speak at a local business before an evening fundraiser with billionaire Donald Trump and former Speaker of the House and one-time GOP primary rival Newt Gingrich.
Romney was last in Colorado May 9, when he spoke about energy at a Fort Lupton drill site.