It has been 25 years since West Virginia had an open Senate seat, so Monday night's debate was a bit of a novelty for Mountain State voters. But the four Senate hopefuls wasted little time in the hourlong debate to make the case that they should win the special election to fill remaining two years of the the late Sen. Robert Byrd's unexpired term in the Senate.
The match-up pitted West Virginia's two-term governor, Joe Manchin
, against businessman John Raese,
a former head of the state Republican party making his fourth attempt at statewide office in West Virginia. The two heavy-hitters were also joined by Jesse Johnson, the candidate from the Mountain Party who brought an intellectual flair to the meet, and Jeff Beck, the Constitution Party candidate who called several times for the repeal of the 17th amendment, the amendment that allows the general public to elect senators.
In the state that John McCain won by 13 points in 2008, Raese called repeatedly for a small federal government with few federal solutions. "What I want to do in the United States Senate is to bring back the spirit of America, it's called capitalism and free enterprise," Raese said.
Manchin, on the other hand, spent much of the debate as he has spent much of the election so far -- distancing himself from President Barack Obama and Democrats in Washington.
"I will be independent, I have always been independent," Manchin said. "When you see what's happening in this country, I'm as mad as you are. When [elected officials] put their parties first and they put their own ambitions before they put this country, that's got to change."
Manchin repeatedly rapped the president for his energy reform legislation, known as cap and trade, that would charge carbon emmitors, especially coal-fired power plants, for the carbon they release into the atmosphere. "It would be the ruin not only of this state but of the entire economy," Manchin said. "We need to mine every lump of coal we can. ... That's how we're going to have a secure and a free nation."
Raese agreed with Manchin on the potential dangers of the legislation for the state, but took his argument one step further by calling global warming "a myth," and adding that the idea that man causes global warming is also a myth. "I don't believe in that myth," Raese said.
Strikingly, on the question of earmarks, neither Manchin nor Raese embraced the practice that Byrd used to build roads, bridges, schools and federal offices in the state.
"I don't think it's the best answer for the state of West Virginia," Raese said. "If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime, if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day."
Manchin defended the role of the federal government in spending for some infrastructure, like roads, sewer systems and universal broadband access. "Those are things where the free enterprise system is not going to go -- they're only going to go where the market is," Manchin said. "The federal government should be your partner, not your provider."
The Mountain Party's Johnson added: "We have firemen, if we have police officers, we have a military, a tremendous infrastructure. If we're purely based on capitalism, we would not have that."
Manchin and Raese agreed on other issues, to an extent. Both endorsed a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. "It seems like there's no way [people in Washington] can discipline themselves," Manchin said, calling the federal deficit "unconscionable."
Raese also called for a balanced budget amendment, but pointed to Manchin's support for the $800 billion stimulus bill as an inconsistency for the governor. "If this is his way to save and to cut spending, then it's a bit odd to me," he said.
Both men also said they would extend the Bush tax cuts, although Raese called for the cuts to become permanent, while Manchin would commit to only a temporary extension. "I don't think during a time of recession you mess with any of the taxes or increase any taxes," he said.
But the two also disagreed, sometimes forcefully. In the wake of two major coal mine collapses in West Virginia, Raese said that coal companies, not federal workers, should take the lead in updating safety in the mines. "I'd like to see more of the private sector involved, miners involved, instead of the federal government like we're seeing today," he said.
But Manchin said he will introduce legislation in West Virginia to make the mines more safe after a government investigation of the recent collapses is complete. "I have sat through too many tragedies and I never want to do that again," he said.
The strongest disagreements came when the men debated the federal minimum wage and health care reform, when Manchin, who favors the minimum wage and some parts of the health bill, said he would not let the whims of capitalism be the last resort for West Virginians who need help. "Every time we hit bottom in this country, it's the Democratic Party that stood up and helped people -- the average person struggling, trying to take care of their families."
Manchin said he would try to repeal some pieces of the health care bill, but not all.
Raese said his greatest objection to the health reform law is philosophical. "I don't like socialism, to tell you the truth,".Raese said. "I'd like to repeal every part of it because it's unadulterated socialism. It is the worst bill that has ever come out of the United States Senate and House."
In opposing the federal minimum wage, Raese said: "I don't like the government setting price controls, I don't like the government setting wage controls. ... Manchin and Obama enjoy people working for $7.25 an hour. Quite frankly I don't."
Throughout the evening, the debaters and their questioners stayed away from some of the personal attacks that have permeated the campaign in recent weeks, especially for Raese.
Raese was never asked about an ad that Republicans ran against Manchin that included actors brought in through a casting call that called for a "hickey" look to mimic real West Virginians.
He also did not mention, nor was he asked about his current West Virginia residency. Raese owns several homes and his children attend school in Florida. His wife was recently purged from the West Virginia voter roles because she is registered to vote in Florida.
Despite the fact that four men were on stage, Manchin and Raese dominated most of the debate. When the Mountain Party's Johnson was asked for his final response, he complained that he had not been able to answer several of the debate questions and said that it was part of the reason he asked voters at his campaign stops: "Are you sick enough yet? If not now, when? There is something wrong with the country and it's the two-party system.