CASTLEWOOD, Va. – In his first visit to Southwest Virginia, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, speaking at the United Mine Workers’ annual fish fry here on Saturday, was quick to tout his ties to coal.

“I hope you won’t hold it against me, but I am a hard-coal miner, anthracite coal, Scranton, Pa.,” Biden said. “It’s nice to be back in coal country. … It’s a different accent [in Southwest Virginia] … but it’s the same deal. We were taught that our faith and our family was the only really important thing, and our faith and our family informed everything we did.”

Biden, a U.S. senator from Delaware, told the story of his great-grandfather, a mining engineer who was elected to the state Senate in 1904 and was rumored to be a Molly Maguire, a member of a secret organization tied to union activism and crime in the Pennsylvania coalfields in the 19th century.

“He went out of his way to prove that he wasn’t, and we were all praying that he was,” he said.

Other speakers, including Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, also stumped here for Biden, and praised him while trying to hammer home the point that this marks the third visit to the region by a member of the Democratic presidential ticket in the 2008 election season. Biden’s running mate, presidential candidate Barack Obama, visited Southwest Virginia in June and earlier this month.

U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-9th, sought to get one message across about Obama: “Senator Obama’s a friend of coal.”

Biden covered a lot of topics in his speech, but focused on drawing a contrast between the Republican and Democratic nominees; he painted Obama’s Republican challenger, John McCain, as out of touch and concerned primarily with the well-being of the rich.

“I’m kind of sick and tired of Republicans talking to me about how much they love the military,” Biden said. “My dad used to say, don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

He said Democrats were responsible for getting better armored vehicles to protect U.S. troops serving in Iraq, and are seeking an expanded GI Bill to include benefits for National Guard troops who serve in foreign wars.

He blamed Republican banking policies for the recent meltdown on Wall Street – and said McCain policies would bring similar disaster to the health-care system, Social Security and the American middle class.

He promised Democrats would bring middle-class tax cuts, investment in clean-coal and liquid-coal technologies and laws that would prevent corporate executives from keeping millions of dollars when a bankruptcy wipes out employee pensions.

“Barack Obama and I are going to change the law so if any company decides it wants to go bankrupt, it’s OK … but they have to put every nickel they have into that bankruptcy, they lose everything,” Biden said.

“I promise you what will happen. As we Christians say, they will have an epiphany. They will say maybe bankruptcy is not such a good idea when they have to lose everything they have.”

He also said American citizens’ gun rights would be safe under an Obama administration.

He told the hundreds of union members gathered for the speech that the American middle class exists because of the labor movement – and that the Bush administration, which he tied to McCain, has waged a third war in addition to those in Afghanistan and Iraq: a war on labor.

“You’re the only thing that stands … between us and the barbarians at the gate, man,” he said.

Kaine, who spoke both in Castlewood and at an earlier town hall-style meeting in Abingdon, Va., said Southwest Virginia will make the difference in this year’s presidential race.

“If we win the electoral votes of Virginia, that’s enough, I think, to make Barack president,” Kaine said in Abingdon. “If we get that 13, I don’t think there’s any other path for McCain to get to 270.”

He said energy and health care are the two key issues of the day that will be decided, along with the need to look at small businesses to gauge the economy’s health, the need for government regulation of industry and the need for investment in people and infrastructure.

Also stumping for Obama and Biden at the fish fry, Kaine sought to dispel comparisons between the Democratic candidates and celebrities, as well as accusations that they are elitists.

“These are regular, basic, decent folks,” Kaine said. “They have clawed their way up from the bottom because of their faith in the American dream … and the opportunity this country provides them.”

Neither McCain nor his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has been to Southwest Virginia on a campaign stop. But they’re coming, said Patty Denton, chairwoman of the Washington County Republican Party.

“I don’t know exactly when yet, but they will, they certainly will,” Denton said on Saturday.

Denton said none of the county’s Republican officials heard Biden’s speech on Saturday. They were all in Abingdon, celebrating the opening of their new party headquarters – and McCain’s Southwest Virginia campaign headquarters – at Exit 19 of Interstate 81.

She said energy is growing in support of McCain as well – and the office was busy all day with a steady stream of people looking to volunteer and support McCain.

“It’s been a wonderful response … people just coming out of the woodwork wanting to help us,” Denton said. “[We’ve] never had that before.”

Calls to the Obama-Biden campaign were referred to a regional spokesman. Calls to the Republican National Committee were not returned, nor were additional calls to the campaign seeking comment Saturday evening.

Asked whether Obama is truly a friend of coal, Eastern Coal Council Executive Director Barbara Altizer said Obama did support a clean-coal research facility.

“I think he’s maybe not as good a friend as we’d like to have, but I think all of the candidates will have to support clean-coal technology,” Altizer said. “I keep hoping whoever gets the election, they’ll have the opportunity to learn about coal and they’ll be a good friend.”

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