Ben Neary, Associated Press
Wyoming gubernatorial candidates prepare for Thursday's debate in Riverton. From left are: Democrat Pete Gosar; Republican Gov. Matt Mead; independent Don WIlls; and Libertarian Dee Cozzens.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A strong energy-based economy, his defense of coal and his party's dominance in Wyoming make Republican Gov. Matt Mead the strong favorite as he seeks a second term in November.

Mead has campaigned on his economic record, championing his fight against what he sees as the Obama administration's war on coal — its efforts to cut carbon emissions — and heading trade missions to Asia to seek new coal markets. Along the way, Mead has butted heads with state officials in the Northwest who oppose Wyoming's plans to export coal from deep-water Pacific ports.

"As I see the state overall, it wasn't in bad shape when I took it over," Mead said in a recent interview. "By no means. The state was in good shape. But we've improved upon that, and I think that's the role of every governor, to make it a little better."

Democrat Pete Gosar has staked his campaign on coal, health insurance and meeting as many voters as he can in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats three-to-one. It's a long haul, but he notes that Mead's predecessor, Dave Freudenthal, was a two-term Democrat.

Under Mead's watch, Wyoming has enticed computer companies to locate operations here. Mead also is making a major push to upgrade Internet service around the state. The economy is growing and healthy.

"Unemployment's gone from a little under 7 percent to a little over 4 percent now," said Mead, whose grandfather, the late Clifford Hansen, was a Wyoming governor and senator. "We have the lowest taxes in the country."

While Mead backed lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its air-quality regulations, Gosar argues the state should support research to cut emissions. That way, he says, Wyoming wouldn't have to look to overseas coal markets if it could meet federal standards at home.

Gosar criticizes Mead's decision not to accept millions in federal funds to expand the Medicaid program in Wyoming. Those funds would help Wyoming expand Medicaid to cover more than 15,000 working poor who earn too much to qualify for traditional coverage.

Mead's administration has been meeting with federal officials in recent months to explore a deal. However, he still has concerns over whether Medicaid expansion is sustainable.

"It looks more like how to pay for stuff, rather than how to improve stuff, in terms of health and access to health," Mead said. "How do we go from a state that has the highest health care costs to lowering them somewhat? The Affordable Care Act doesn't help us get there, so I'm still skeptical about it."

Gosar notes the governor didn't have any similar compunction about accepting federal highway or education funds.

"Anytime you can provide health access to 18,000 working people, and save yourself and your state hundreds of millions of dollars, save and solidify your health care facilities throughout the state, you better have a good reason not to do that," Gosar said.

Gosar, who resigned as state party chairman to challenge Mead, also has hammered what he calls Mead's inaccessibility to the public.

"When I ask people, Republicans and Democrats and independents, when I ask them at their doors, where are we headed in education? Where are we headed in health care? What is our economic diversity goal? They don't know," Gosar said.

Libertarian candidate Dee Cozzens, a hospital administrator from Lovell, favors expanding Medicaid.

Don Wills of Pine Bluffs, an independent candidate, says voters can trust him not to expand Medicaid.

Taylor Haynes, who lost to Mead in the August Republican primary, is running a write-in campaign.