By Lawrence Messina
FAIRLEA — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Thursday repeated his pledge to make West Virginia coal key to his national energy plan, and said that commitment would include federal funding for technology to convert coal into liquid fuel.
“We will invest as a nation in new sources of energy, including clean coal,” Romney told The Associated Press while walking with a crowd at the State Fair of West Virginia.
Romney also reaffirmed his desire that the blind trust overseeing his family fortune divest of interests involved with embryonic stem cell research or business deals with Iran.
“My trustee has indicated publicly that he will make an effort to make sure that my investments to the extent possible and practical, will conform with my political positions,” Romney told reporters during his half-hour visit to the sprawling Greenbrier County fairgrounds.
A listing of investments in the trust published this week included companies that work with embryonic stem cells, and foreign energy firms with ties to Iran.
As he pursues conservative support amid the 2008 GOP field, Romney has campaigned against such research while also advocating that public pension funds shed stocks of those involved in Iran.
As for coal, Romney said he ranks it alongside ethanol, biofuels and nuclear energy as alternatives to foreign oil. Romney has also called for increasing the efficiency of homes and vehicles, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Toward that end, Romney said he supports ways to siphon off or reduce carbon dioxide created when coal is burned for fuel.
Romney said he considers coal-to-liquid a “clean” technology. Environmental advocates challenge that moniker, arguing that fuel made from coal generates more greenhouse gases than refining crude oil.
The chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party warned West Virginians to take the former Massachusetts governor’s views on the issues with a grain of salt.
Nick Casey said in a prepared statement that Romney campaigned for governor as a pro-choice, anti-gun Republican. “Now, as he tries to woo conservative voters for the 2008 race for president, Romney is changing his stance on those issues.”
Casey said Romney “has relied on smooth talk to try to gain traction in presidential polls. Here in West Virginia, we rely on straight talk.”
The West Virginians that Romney met along the way included Buck Thompson of Union and Patty Douglass of Clarksburg. Their families have been meeting at the fair for at least 15 years, and the two Republicans appeared pleased to greet him.
“He’s looking real good,” said Thompson, 64, happy that Romney had correctly guessed his 13-year-old granddaughter’s age.
“He took the time to come to West Virginia, so that influences me a lot,” added Douglass, 65.
But more than a few fairgoers had to ask who Romney was, despite the ring of supporters sporting banners and lapel stickers. The former Massachusetts governor said he may not be well known in the Mountain State, but cited his recent win in the Iowa Republican Party Straw Poll as helping to spread his name.
Local officials on hand to welcome the GOP candidate included Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, and Greenbrier County Sen. Jesse Guills, Delegate Ray Canterbury, and Circuit Judge Jim Rowe.
Gov. Joe Manchin — himself a coal-to-liquid enthusiast — also toured the fair Thursday with his wife and fellow Democratic officials. Though their respective entourages passed within several dozen yards of each other, Manchin and Romney did not meet.
Longtime Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass, whose department oversees the fair, said he believes Romney is the first presidential candidate to visit the annual state showcase and festival. The nine-day fair ends Saturday.
Romney visited the fair as he tours states with early primaries. West Virginia’s Republican Party plans to select a number of its delegates to the national nominating convention on Feb. 5. The date has been dubbed “Super-Duper Tuesday” for its number of primaries and caucuses.
Romney is the first candidate to sign up for the state GOP meeting, and announced Thursday that he has paid his $5,000 registration fee. Earlier this month, he picked a 15-member steering committee for his West Virginia campaign that includes several veterans from President Bush’s winning 2000 and 2004 runs.
With South Carolina as his next stop, Romney began the day in New Hampshire. He previously appeared in West Virginia in March, when he spoke at a Kanawha County Republican Party dinner.