For Manchin, support for coal is personal, business and political commonsense.
In the early morning of Nov. 20, 1968, an explosion at the Mountaineer Coal Co. mine in Farmington, W.Va., killed 78 miners. Among the dead were Manchin's uncle, John Gouzd, and high school friends.
In the years since, Manchin owes some of his wealth to Enersystems Inc., a coal brokerage firm he once helped operate. Manchin's financial disclosure forms in 2009 and 2010 showed operating income of more than $1.7 million.
West Virginia is the second-largest coal producing state behind Wyoming and its mines and plants add up to more than 21,000 underground and surface jobs, according to the Energy Department. Coal mined in Appalachia generates electricity, is shipped overseas and is used in metal production.
Manchin has repeatedly challenged the Obama administration over coal. In 2010, as West Virginia governor, he sued the EPA over its crackdown on mountaintop mining.
"Enough is enough," Manchin said this past June. "The people of West Virginia are tired of the EPA's overreach, and I will do everything in my power to rein in the EPA — and any agency that oversteps its authority."
The Democrat has consistently voted with Republicans for legislation to roll back EPA rules.
Yet, in the one and only Senate campaign debate earlier this month, Manchin repeatedly had to defend himself against criticism from Republican rival and businessman John Raese, who tied the Democrat to Obama.
"Who controls the environmental rules, that's the executive branch and that's handled by his quarterback, Barack Obama," said Raese, delivering his rhetorical stabs with the smooth voice of a late-night deejay on one of his radio stations. "Joe's heart ... is in the right place. I'm not saying it's not. I'm just saying the team that he's on has no interest at all in helping West Virginia. The only interest they have is getting us out of the fossil fuel business."
Manchin insisted he would fight for coal, no matter what.
"The government should be your partner. It shouldn't be your adversary," he said on the debate stage at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va. "It should be your ally and that's what we don't have in Washington and that's what I've been working for. And I'll work with whoever the president. I worked when President Bush was there. I worked with President Obama. I will work with the next president."
West Virginia voters are expected to give Manchin a full six-year term in November. Obama lost the state in 2008 by 13 percentage points and in this year's Democratic primary in May, a convicted felon in Texas got 40 percent of the vote to the president's 60 percent, a fresh reminder of Obama's unpopularity in the state. Romney is expected to handily win West Virginia's five electoral votes next month.
In Ohio, coal is responsible for some 3,000 underground and surface jobs, and generates more than 87 percent of the state's electricity. Ohio is seventh in the nation in coal reserves with 23.7 billion short tons and Belmont County is the leading coal producer in the state, churning out 760 million tons since 1816, according to the Ohio Coal Association.
Power plants that burn coal produce more than 90 times as much sulfur dioxide, five times as much nitrogen oxide and twice as much carbon dioxide as those that run on natural gas, according to the Government Accountability Office, the regulatory arm of Congress. Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain; nitrogen oxides cause smog; and carbon dioxide is a so-called greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.
The EPA tightened limits on power-plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, and placed new limits on mercury, a poison found in coal. That step will force some of the dirtiest and oldest coal plants to close.
Even more disconcerting for the industry is the EPA guidelines that could limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants as early as next year.
In Ohio, Brown faces a challenge from Republican Josh Mandel, who at a recent campaign stop eagerly compared the Ohio Democrat's record on coal and energy to Manchin's. He linked Brown to the president.
"Obama is the general in the war on coal and Sherrod Brown is his lieutenant," Mandel said.
Brown defended his record in a brief interview.
"My record on energy is broad," he said. "I think as the president said, 'You look everywhere.' You start by taking away the tax breaks for the oil industry. You hear these Republicans say the president is picking winners and losers on energy and they insist on subsidizing oil, and there's no rhyme or reason to subsidize oil."
Brown wears a canary in a cage lapel pin, which he says "symbolizes to me the role of government in peoples' lives to make things better whether it's mine safety or Medicare or Social Security."
But Mike Carey, chairman of the Ohio Coal Association, doesn't see Brown as a friend of coal.
"You can have very safe miners, but if they can't mine coal, maybe they're going to be selling canaries because they're not going to be mining coal," Carey said.