WASHINGTON/CARMEL, Ind. (Reuters) - U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton met with coal and steel workers in the Appalachian region on Monday in an effort to win over blue-collar voters in a part of the country with strong support for Republican Donald Trump.
The real estate mogul made his own pitch on Monday to voters in areas struggling from the loss of industry, telling a crowd in Indiana he would create "clean coal" jobs.
Clinton has increasingly turned her attention beyond the Democratic Party nomination fight with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and is making early moves to try to siphon support from Trump ahead of a possible match-up in the Nov. 8 election.
On Monday, she met union leaders and some of the 600 workers who were laid off last year when AK Steel Holding Corp announced it would idle a furnace in eastern Kentucky.
She said jobs losses in manufacturing and the coal industry in the area had been a heavy blow.
"Talk about a ripple effect. It's just devastating communities," Clinton told workers around a table at an Italian restaurant in the town of Ashland.
While the Republican presidential candidates focus on Tuesday's primary contest in Indiana, Clinton launched a trip to Appalachia this week that will include events in Ohio and West Virginia.
She has a large lead over Sanders for the Democratic nomination. Unions typically back Democratic candidates, and union leaders have endorsed both Clinton and Sanders in the 2016 presidential race.
But Trump's pro-coal, anti-trade message and outsider status has resonated with some blue collar union members frustrated with Washington politicians. He and other Republicans also accuse President Barack Obama's administration of waging a "war on coal" by imposing strict environmental regulations.
"I'm a free-market guy, but not when you're getting killed," Trump said at a rally in Carmel, Indiana. "Look at steel, it's being wiped out. Your coal industry is wiped out, and China is taking our coal."
The New York businessman won the Republican nominating contest in Kentucky in March, sweeping most of the counties in the economically struggling east of the state.
Parts of Appalachia, a region that spans multiple states across the eastern United States, have struggled with poverty and job losses. West Virginia's unemployment rate of 6.5 percent in March was well above the national rate of 5 percent, according to Labor Department data. Ohio's unemployment rate was 5.1 percent, while the figure in Kentucky was 5.6 percent.
It will be an uphill struggle for Clinton there if she wins the nomination. She has pledged more than $30 billion to help regions that depend on coal, but her promise was overshadowed when she said in March that the country would "put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."
And her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigned on Sunday in West Virginia, encountering protests from Trump supporters.
West Virginia last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996, when Bill Clinton was running for his second four-year term. He is the only Democrat who has won Kentucky since 1980.
TRUMP IN INDIANA
Trump will take a leap toward winning the Republican nomination if he comes out ahead in Tuesday's Indiana primary. His success in the race for the White House may well ride on the support of Republican evangelicals.
Top rival Ted Cruz planned stops to greet voters across the state on Monday, running into a group of Trump supporters in Marion, Indiana who berated him. He deployed his wife, Heidi, and Carly Fiorina, the ex-candidate who Cruz has chosen as his running mate if he gets the Republican nomination, to a coffee shop and art gallery in Carmel, Indiana.
Cruz, who lags Trump in delegates to the Republican National Convention in July, told reporters on Monday he would stay in the race "as long as we have a viable path to victory."
Republicans plan to tie Clinton to what they say is an anemic economy under President Barack Obama. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Monday cited data released last week that showed economic growth slipped in the first quarter to its slowest pace in two years.
"Struggling Americans will never get ahead under Hillary Clinton. They are going to keep getting taken to the cleaners," Priebus said in an opinion piece for RealClearPolitics.