President George W. Bush won West Virginia by 6 percentage points four years ago, just the fourth Republican to win the state since 1932 and the first who wasn't an incumbent. His advisers say West Virginia is virtually certain to go GOP again Nov. 2.
Not so fast, says the campaign of Democratic Senator John Kerry.
Advisers to the Massachusetts senator acknowledge that he trails Mr. Bush in West Virginia, but they insist the state is still within reach. They point to the fact that it is among the top five states in terms of television commercials being aired by both campaigns.
Why would Mr. Bush be spending so much money if he has the state locked up? Only because the state's television markets bleed into Ohio and Pennsylvania, two true battlegrounds, according to Mr. Bush's team.
Whatever the outcome, West Virginia is a rapidly changing state.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-1. They dominate the political landscape from the governor's office and the Legislature to the state Supreme Court and all but one seat in Congress. But when it comes to the White House, allegiances waver. Democrats in the state tend to be socially conservative, closer to the Republicans' than to their own party's stance on issues such as guns, gay rights and abortion.
West Virginians "like that Mr. Bush is Christian and not afraid to say it," said Karen Johnson, a voter from Pence Springs.
At the same time, the state's voters are overwhelmingly blue collar and open to the Democratic Party's pitch on economic issues. West Virginia has a 5.5 per cent unemployment rate and has lost 1,000 jobs since Mr. Bush took office.
Against Democrat Al Gore in 2000, Mr. Bush secured 84 percent of Republican votes while getting one-fourth of Democrats and 62 percent of independents.
BY THE NUMBERS:
5 -- Electoral votes.
37,112 -- Personal bankruptcies since Bush took office, up 13 percent.
1,481 -- In dollars, the average West Virginia individual federal income tax refund last year.
13 -- Percentage of U.S. coal production from West Virginia.
West Virginia is the only state where the National Guard met its recruitment goal for 2004 while also maintaining full troop strength.
The state has the third-highest proportion of senior citizens in the nation, with 15.3 percent of residents 65 or older.
Though Bush tried to tag Al Gore as anti-coal in 2000, Gore won six of the state's top 10 coal-producing counties. Gore won counties that represented two-thirds of the state's 2000 coal production.
WHAT TO WATCH ON ELECTION NIGHT:
For the first time in recent memory, the Republican Party is fielding candidates in all seven statewide races, all three U.S. House contests and all but one of the state's 117 legislative races. This could ensure higher Republican turnout. A federal probe (by a Bush-appointed U.S. attorney) of allegations of vote buying in the Democrat-dominated southern coalfields could dampen turnout there.
IN WEST VIRGINIA FOUR YEARS AGO:
The Democrats and Al Gore were caught napping and took West Virginia for granted. Bush won by nearly 41,000 votes, or 6.3 percent. Bush won by holding onto 84 percent of Republican votes while attracting 25 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents. Bush and Gore split the moderate vote about evenly.
Associated Press writer Lawrence Messina contributed to this report.