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White House turns blind eye on Democrats who oppose climate rules

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in Republican-leaning states have a simple strategy for dealing with President Barack Obama's upcoming power plant restrictions before the mid-term elections: Fight them, with the White House's blessing.

The new rules, popular with the Democratic Party's base, are one of Obama's highest domestic priorities for his second term.

But they are complicating the lives of Democrats in coal and oil-rich states such as West Virginia, Louisiana and Alaska, where candidates are piling on the president and the Environmental Protection Agency for proposing restrictions that could cost jobs locally.

With control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs in the November congressional elections, Democrats' hopes of maintaining their majority could rest on the very races where the new energy rules are deeply unpopular.

So, the White House is turning a blind eye to attacks from within the party, despite the importance of the regulations to Obama's agenda and post-presidential legacy.

"We understand that there are going to be Democrats in these states that oppose it and are perfectly prepared that that's going to happen," one White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We don't agree, but we don't have a problem with it."

Despite their casual acceptance of Democrats who criticize the climate rules, the administration was not willing to put off releasing the regulations, which are due out on Monday.

And strategists inside and outside the White House were preparing to fight hard against the onslaught of criticism from industry, Republicans, and even fellow Democrats.

"I can understand how they are positioning themselves in their races. I still think that you end up on the wrong side of history," said Chris Lehane, a strategist for billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, referring to defecting Democrats.

But like White House officials, Steyer, who is spending millions of dollars to advance candidates who support green causes, will not attack those Democrats who oppose the new rules.

"We're certainly not going to be helpful to them and their campaigns, but we're also not going to target them," Lehane said.

SALES PITCH AND FRUSTRATION

The EPA rules will establish mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, which are among the biggest culprits in producing climate warming emissions.

To fight attacks against them, White House officials have viewed ads that are critical of the moves and are trying to shore up support in Congress to thwart Republicans who have pledged to do what they can to rein in the EPA.

A sales pitch is also in the works.

In a high-profile foreign policy speech on Wednesday, Obama made a point of referencing the fight against global warming, delighting Europeans ahead of the G7 summit next week in Brussels, where Obama will tout the new U.S. rules, according to White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

At home, the White House is selling them by emphasizing the health benefits of cleaning carbon out of the atmosphere.

Obama, who will not be present when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy unveils the regulations on Monday, visited children suffering from asthma at a medical center on Friday and taped his weekly radio address - on climate change - while there.

That new public push follows a long campaign by the White House and the EPA to win public and state backing for the controversial proposals. [ID:nL1N0NZ0L6]

None of that is helpful to Democrats such as Natalie Tennant, the West Virginia secretary of state and U.S. Senate hopeful, who is campaigning as a "pro-coal" candidate. She said McCarthy had turned down requests to visit her state as part of an outreach tour.

"She goes and touts a listening tour and doesn't come to West Virginia, doesn't come to the place and see the people who are impacted," Tennant said in an interview.

An EPA spokeswoman said McCarthy had met with leaders from the state despite not having traveled there.

That is not enough for Tennant, who, like embattled incumbent Senators Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Begich in Alaska, is actively distancing herself from Obama.

"I am not afraid to stand up to anyone. I'll stand up to the president," she said.

But Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, who is running against Tennant to replace retiring long-time Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, argues that the best way to block the EPA rules is to help Republicans gain control of the Senate.

"Miners are losing their jobs, families are struggling to make ends meet and there is no relief in sight from the heavy hand of Obama’s EPA," Capito said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Caren Bohan and Gunna Dickson)

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