By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; A1
CLARKSBURG, W.VA. - In any other year, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III would be a lock to win his race for Senate. He's as popular as almost any politician in America, with an approval rating around 70 percent. Even his opponents concede that he's done a good job.
If that weren't enough, his opponent, John Raese, is a millionaire heir who faces questions about just how committed he is to West Virginia. His wife is registered to vote in Palm Beach, Fla., where they own a home, and his daughters go to school there.
His policies might be problematic as well - in one of the poorest states in the nation, Raese advocates for doing away with the federal minimum wage. And he has a favorite joke that may not exactly resonate in these difficult times: "I made my money the old-fashioned way - I inherited it."
In any other year - say, 1984, 1988 or 2006, when Raese lost races for statewide office - he would not be much of an obstacle for someone like Manchin.
But this year Manchin has one problem he can't fix. "There's not much wrong with him," said John Jenks, attending a Raese event on Wednesday in this central West Virginia town. "It's just that he's a Democrat."
That little fact has turned the race to replace Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D) from a coronation of Manchin into the one of the most competitive races in the country, with both parties running nearly constant campaign commercials to win an election that could determine which party controls the Senate.
Raese, who won only 34 percent of the vote when he ran against Byrd in 2006, has surged in the past month with a simple message: The governor will be a "rubber stamp" for Obama.
Manchin has responded by trying to show voters just how unlike a Democrat he can be. He brags about his endorsement from the National Rifle Association. He has sued the Obama administration over environmental policy and in a campaign commercial fires a rifle at a copy of the "cap and trade" emissions legislation that congressional Democrats have advocated. He promises, if elected, to "take on Washington and this administration."
Manchin, who last year said he was "totally behind health-care reform," has also distanced himself from the law that eventually passed. In an interview, he said he would support dumping two requirements that are the centerpieces of the legislation: that individuals must purchase insurance and that businesses must cover their employees.
"It's not a bill I would have voted for after it was all finished up," Manchin said.
Manchin, who won reelection in 2008 with 70 percent of the vote, is caught between two powerful political trends. Like many of its neighbors, West Virginia has shifted strongly to the right in the past decade. Democrats far outnumber Republicans in voter registration, but they tend to be conservative and favor the GOP in presidential elections - both Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and President Obama lost the state by 13 points.
And along with the general GOP surge across the country, Manchin has to face what Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) called the "Obama factor."
If you tried to create a state where Obama would be unpopular, it would be hard to match West Virginia: The coalition of young voters, minorities, liberals and urbanites that powered the president's victories in many states is almost nonexistent here. Only Florida has a higher percentage of elderly residents, and many here worry that the health-care law will diminish their Medicare coverage.
In 2008, Obama lost the Democratic primary here to Hillary Rodham Clinton by 41 points. In exit polls a fifth of the voters said the race of the candidate was "important to them," and more than 80 percent of those voters backed Clinton.
A Gallup poll in July showed that Obama's approval rating in the state has only decreased since then - it was 34 percent, tied with Utah and Idaho and higher only than in Wyoming.
"People like Obama, but they don't like his policies," said Gerald Wood, a retired pharmacist here who is backing Raese. "Some people think it's a racial thing, but it's not."
The dynamics of the year have vaulted Raese, who received little attention nationally when he easily won the GOP primary in August. He had not only lost badly in his past runs, but his risky stands on issues such as the minimum wage and his lack of campaign organization appeared to be difficult obstacles to overcome.
But soon after the primary, Raese, heir to a powerful family in the state that owns steel and limestone companies, started pummeling Manchin as an Obama ally on health care and other issues.
Like nearly every GOP candidate in the country, Raese promises to repeal the health-care law, keep in place tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003, even for wealthy people, and balance the budget, although he has offered almost no details on how he would do so.
Manchin, who had only lightly campaigned during the Democratic primary, was blindsided as polls showed his double-digit lead had evaporated last month.
To rebound, he has started attacking Obama in the manner of a tea party candidate. Last week, Manchin's administration announced it would sue the Environmental Protection Agency over a delay in federal permits for mountaintop removal mining. Manchin aides have denied that the suit was filed for political reasons, an assertion that prompts laughter from Republicans here.
His provocative rifle-shooting ads highlighted his long-standing opposition to bills that would cap carbon emissions, which members of both parties in West Virginia worry would damage the state's coal industry.
"He's zoned in - through his television, through his actions, through the way he talks, he's different than he was three weeks ago," Rockefeller said of Manchin.
Manchin has seized on Raese's Florida connections, saying in an ad that if his wife can't vote for him, "why should we?" In an interview, Raese emphasized that he votes in West Virginia and also pays property and income taxes here.
Democrats also attacked Raese after reports surfaced that a casting call for a campaign ad funded by the National Republican Senatorial Committee had called for "hicky" actors to play West Virginia residents. Raese's campaign was not involved in the ad, but GOP officials in Washington were forced to apologize for it, and it drew headlines here even though it has been pulled.
Strategists in both parties say the race will come down to whether Manchin can convince voters that he won't be overly supportive of the president if elected to the Senate.
Rockefeller, who backed the health-care law and has praised Obama's performance as president, said of Manchin's anti-Obama tactics: "Whatever he does, I'll support, in order that he be part of the Democratic caucus."
"It's an impossible year to run a rational election," Rockefeller added.
Raese complained about Manchin's approach, charging that "he's changed every stance in the world in the last month."
"There are some differences," Raese said when asked if he and Manchin diverge on key issues. But, he added, "if I say what they are, tomorrow there probably won't be."