CARMICHAELS -- Three retired coal miners were sitting behind the United Mine Workers Association vendor table at the King Coal Show here Wednesday when a fellow Greene County resident approached with a question.
"Who are the coal miners going to endorse in the presidential election?" asked Emmett McKenzie of Carmichaels.
Conversations at the show, now in its 59th year of celebrating the bedrock and the community that mines it, were as clear an indication as any of the political overtones that coal is taking on this election year.
Homes surrounding the fire hall where the festival was held had yard signs calling voters to "Fire Obama." Once again, no natural gas firms working in the area could be convinced to buy a $50 advertisement in the show booklet.
The United Mine Workers of America endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, with union President Cecil E. Roberts saying at the time, "Sen. Obama is from a coal state. He understands that coal will remain a primary source for electricity generation in this country for many decades to come."
The word this year: "Neither candidate has yet demonstrated that he will be on the side of UMWA members and their families as president."
Republican candidates and the super-PACs that support them see an opening. A concentrated effort has emerged across the tri-state area to get black-rock supporters to vote red and to tie the Obama administration to hard times hitting the industry.
The well-financed campaign has been visible on billboards and yard signs along southern Pennsylvania counties such as Greene and Fayette, with some of the massive signage financed by national organizations orchestrating a multistate movement.
Pundits and observers had thought the energy debate in the 2012 presidential election would be about shale gas, the bountiful resource that has brought controversial development to parts of the country and forced the coal industry on the defensive.
Increased competition from cheap natural gas and Environmental Protection Agency decisions to shutter dozens of coal-fired power plants have led to unprecedented drops in coal demand.
Last month, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that domestic coal- and natural gas-powered generation were equal for the first time since the agency began calculating the information.
"What is depressing the coal industry is probably more due to the gas than what Obama has done," conceded Robert E. Murray, the president and chief executive officer of bituminous coal mine firm Murray Energy in Pepper Pike, Ohio.
Mr. Murray said natural gas started to compete as a power plant supplier when gas prices hit $3.50 per Mcf. Gas has been below that price since October 2011.
Mr. Murray has been one of his industry's most vocal critics of the Obama administration, repeatedly calling the president out by name in two press releases announcing layoffs at his mines this summer -- the first time he said he's done such a thing in his 55-year career.
"There has never been an instance that has ever come close to Mr. Obama's 'war on coal' by any president on any segment of our society," he said.
Mr. Murray has been a staunch Republican supporter in the past and has hosted events for Republican candidate Mitt Romney this year. He said what he sees as a "regulatory rampage" couldn't be coming at a worse time for his firm, where 2012 production is expected to drop by one-third.
Colleagues at publicly owned companies have to worry about shareholder opinion, but his company is privately owned and that affords him more freedom with his words, he said.
The company laid off 52 more workers in the past two weeks. Murray Energy is listed as donating more than $904,000 to Republican candidates and causes in the last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C.
For the 2012 election cycle, donations from coal companies have so far totaled $8.7 million, with 87 percent of that amount going to Republican candidates and causes.
It's a huge increase from the 2008 cycle, when donations totaled $3.5 million, about 74 percent of which went to Republicans.
The campaign isn't unique to Pennsylvania.
The Count on Coal campaign, in which the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity industry group advocates for coal use in electricity generation, has placed more than 150 billboard ads across six battleground states that include Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The campaign against the president is hitting Pennsylvania counties that were very tight races for Democrats and Republicans in the last presidential election.
Greene County is somewhat inoculated to coal's financial hardships because of a robust export economy that ships coal to countries like China, where electrical demand is high and regulatory hurdles are few.
In 2008, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., beat Mr. Obama in Greene County by 60 votes.
Supporters of Mitt Romney's presidential bid aren't taking such a tight margin for granted. Members of the Greene County Republican Committee now hand out two signs at local fairs: One says "Romney 2012," and the other advocates for more coal use.
Democrats have fought back and tried to cast Mr. Romney as an enemy to coal, airing commercials that show the former Massachusetts governor saying in 2003 that a coal-fired plant in Salem, Mass., "kills people."
For its part, the King Coal Association wants to keep its festivities somewhat apolitical, association president Mike Riggen said, and it tries to avoid having candidates use the opportunity to win votes.
Only elected local politicians are allowed to march in the annual parade behind the crowned Bituminous Coal Queen, but sometimes wooing the coal miners can prove too tempting for some.
"You have to win the office to earn a spot in the parade," Mr. Riggen said. "But we've had people try to sneak in."
Erich Schwartzel: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1455.