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In down-and-out coal country, Trump is received as a hero

AFP , Friday 6 May 2016
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally May 5, 2016 in Charleston, West Virginia (Photo: AFP)

Though dogged by a rebellion within his own party, Donald Trump took aim at Hillary Clinton at his first rally as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, promising to put miners back to work in a struggling region where coal has always been king.

No sooner had he begun speaking in Charleston, West Virginia late Thursday than he launched into an attack on the presumptive Democratic nominee.

"How about Hillary Clinton?" he asked the crowd of some 15,000 gathered in the Charleston Civic Center, hundreds of them wearing red caps emblazoned with Trump's slogan: "Make America Great Again!"

"She said, I'm going to put the miners and the mines out of business. Then she comes over and she tried to explain her statement. That's a tough one to explain, wouldn't you say?"

The line drew a loud chorus of boos.

During the 45-minute speech, the crowd rose to its feet repeatedly, cheering the New York billionaire on as he hailed the country's beleaguered coal miners.

"I'm thinking about the miners all over this country. We're going to put the miners back to work. We're going to put the miners back to work. We're going to get those mines open," Trump said.

Trump did not have to make the trip to West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, since he is now the sole Republican candidate in Tuesday's primary in the state.

But visiting coal country allowed him to drive home his message to white working class voters, a shrinking segment of the electorate whose support he is counting on in the general election.

The coal mines have been closing one after another, and are further threatened by the move to clean energy and away from fossil fuels.

Nearly everyone here has a father or an uncle who is a miner or former miner, either retired or laid off. Trump blamed their troubles on President Barack Obama and his environmental regulations.

"You made this country great. They did not have ridiculous regulations that put you out of business, they did not have these ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete.

"So, we are going to take all of that off the table and you had better do well and you had better compete and make me proud of you, OK?"

Trump boasted that by centering his campaign on two themes -- trade and illegal immigration -- he had hit a "pot of gold."

He thinks Clinton is most vulnerable on free trade, associating her with her husband former president Bill Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement.

In Trump's telling, the 1993 trade pact with Mexico and Canada "has single-handedly taken vast amounts of our businesses and in particular of manufacturing business and brought them into Mexico."

In West Virginia, Clinton is an easy target. A gaffe she made in March is still on everyone's lips: she told a town hall audience in Columbus, Ohio that "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."

She apologized for her comment on Monday, but families of miners haven't forgiven her.

"I watched it all, she meant what she said, but she does not understand the kids that she's affected," said Josette White, whose father and grandfathers were miners, and Democrats.

White voted for Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but today she admires Trump because he "always tells the American people that he loves them."

Trump's supporters often say the same things about him: "He says what he thinks" or "he's politically incorrect."

In this region, one of the poorest in the country, they often add that they have regained hope because of him.

"We're tired of all of this -- poverty, no jobs, people leaving West Virginia," said Catherine Cuppari, holding Trump signs under her arm. "I have grandkids, I want them to have jobs here."

The battles within the Republican party seem distant here.

Mark Burns, a black pastor, draws a loud boo from the crowd when he passes on the news that Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, announced he would not support Trump.

"Who is (that)?" asked a woman in her forties.

While in Washington politicians and pundits debate whether Trump can unify the Republicans, one finds in the crowd supporters of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Trump's sworn enemy in the primaries.

Tim Tice, a 46-year-old from Maryland, worries that Trump won't deliver on his promises.

But he added: "We know what we're getting with Hillary, and it's what I don't want, so I'm going to vote for Donald Trump and hope that he will do what he said he was going to do."

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