W. Va. Senate debate turns into a race to the right

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Monday, October 18, 2010; 10:45 PM

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, distanced himself repeatedly from President Obama in a U.S. Senate debate Monday night, while his GOP opponent constantly invoked "Manchin and Obama" as if the two men were running mates.

Manchin emphasized his opposition to parts of the president's health care overhaul and said he would be "independent" from his party in Congress. Asked by one of the debate moderators to name a policy advanced by Democrats he agreed with, Manchin named Social Security, Medicare and the minimum wage - avoiding any of the major bills Obama and congressional Democrats have passed over the last two years.

Nonetheless, businessman John Raese, who has surged in the polls by linking Manchin to Obama, assured the audience that the president and governor "are together" on most key issues.

"I hate to inform my opponent, but Mr. Obama's name will not be on the ballot," Manchin said after Raese had linked him once again to the president.

Most polls show Raese and Manchin as neck and neck, even though Manchin is one of the most popular politicians in America with an approval rating near 70 percent. Obama, though, is highly unpopular in West Virginia, and the prospect that Manchin might push forward the president's agenda is leading many West Virginians to balk at sending the second-term governor to Washington to fill the seat of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

The hour-long debate, the only one scheduled for this race, turned at times into a battle over whether Manchin or Raese could shift further to the right. Both backed a constitutional amendment requiring the federal budget to be balanced, and both echoed the Republican Party's position of wanting all of the tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 extended. (Neither offered details on how they would balance the budget.)

Manchin noted his endorsements from the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, two largely conservative groups that are backing GOP candidates in nearly every race outside of West Virginia.

Raese declared the health care law "unadulterated socialism" and "the worst bill to ever come out of the United States Senate and House." He highlighted his opposition to a federal minimum wage (one position where Manchin disagreed), and he referred to the "myth that is global warming." (Manchin was not asked directly about global warming, but did not try to rebut Raese's comment.)

Manchin said he liked certain parts of the health care legislation, such as its requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions, but he opposed the law requiring individuals to buy insurance and most businesses to cover their employees.

But Manchin mostly emphasized to voters that, in Washington, he would not be tightly joined with either party.

"The bottom line is President Obama or President Bush, I'm an American, I want my president to succeed," he said.

Raese, the millionaire heir to a powerful company in the state, repeatedly cited his business acumen, promising to "bring the spirit of capitalism to the United States Senate."

"My forte is creating jobs," he said.

The debate, which also included conservative Constitution Party candidate Jeff Becker and the liberal Jesse Johnson of the Mountain Party, took place in West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Morgantown studios.

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