INWOOD, W.Va. -- On a recent Saturday in October, West Virginia's Gov. Joe Manchin darted from event to event in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, working without prepared speeches or much staff to speak of. He surfed across a schedule that began with a ribbon-cutting for a local elementary school and wrapped up hours later at a farm party for the Berkeley County Democratic Women's Club.
In between, he gave a pep talk to campaign volunteers, stopped inside Collins' Barber Shop to chat up surprised customers, and gave commendation awards to elderly West Virginians at the Bank of Charles Town.
Although he seemed to relish each stop, there was no missing the urgency behind his moves. Less than 10 days separated him from the election that could either deliver the two-term governor a rare defeat or send him to the United States Senate, which would likely remain under Democratic control with his victory.
End of an Era
In the weeks after the death of Sen. Robert Byrd in late June, Democrats in Washington breathed a sigh of relief when Manchin announced he would run to fill Byrd's unexpired term. With a near-70 percent approval rating
, years of state budget surpluses, and endorsements from right-of-center powerhouses like the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, party insiders considered Manchin a slam dunk to win the seat.
But after the state's primaries and months of withering attack ads fueled by millions of dollars from outside groups, polls showed Manchin even with or trailing John Raese, the Republican businessman making his fourth run at statewide office. While Manchin attacked the wealthy Raese as out of touch and "not one of us," Raese painted Manchin as a loyal foot soldier of President Barack Obama, who lost West Virginia by 13 points in 2008 and now has a dismal 69 percent disapproval rating in the Mountain State.
"I think a lot of people in West Virginia don't like the agenda or the direction that Barack Obama and some of the Democrats are going," Raese told me in an interview before his speech at the Eisenhower dinner at the Martinsburg Holiday Inn. "I think that's the reason (Manchin) is having a problem. When you look at the state of West Virginia, he's very popular here, but that doesn't carry over to Washington."
It's a line of attack that clearly frustrates Manchin. "This is the first time I've ever seen an election where it's not based on what your accomplishments are," Manchin said during one of his stops in Charles Town. "They're saying, 'If he goes (to Washington), he's going to be the same as everyone else.' I can assure you that won't happen."
To prove to West Virginians that it won't happen, Manchin went so far as to decline to endorse the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for their current jobs.
"Things have got to change. People will have time to evaluate and make a decision over the next two years and four years," Manchin said when I asked if he expects to endorse Obama for a second term. "I just think there's a lot of correction, a lot of changes, a lot of things that need to be fixed before I would say anything about anybody running for office."
When I asked if he would vote for Reid as Senate leader, assuming Reid wins on Tuesday, Manchin said only, "I'll support the person who supports West Virginia." Asked if Harry Reid supports West Virginia, Manchin repeated, "I'm going to support the person who supports West Virginia, and I'm not going to support the person who doesn't support West Virginia."
Two Sons of West Virginia
Both Manchin and Raese were born in West Virginia. Manchin, whose family turned out several state lawmakers, attended West Virginia University on a football scholarship, where Raese also went to college and where Raese's father, "Dyke" Raese, coached the basketball team.
Both men went on to work in their family's businesses; for Manchin it was furniture and politics, for Raese, it was Greer Industries, his family's multimillion dollar media and commodities conglomerate that he now runs as CEO.
In 1982, Manchin won a seat in the state's House of Delegates. From there, he went on to the state Senate, the secretary of state's office, and now the governor's mansion. Raese took a turn chairing the West Virginia Republican Party and ran for statewide office three times, including two previous runs for Senate and a campaign for governor.
Despite Raese's long ties to the state, he has has to answer questions recently about his West Virginia residency after media reports revealed he had several homes, including a mansion in Palm Beach, Fla. Democrats, in turn, launched an ad saying Raese moved to Florida "to avoid paying West Virginia taxes."
It's an accusation Raese chafed at as he explained that one of his daughters has special needs and is in a Florida school to address them. "My family lives in Morgantown. When you have a child that has special needs, you try to do the best for your children. But I'm not going to send a 12-year-old little girl out by herself," he said in our interview. "People know where I live."
Race to the Right
On the issues, political observers usually chart Manchin's and Raese's positions on a spectrum from conservative to extremely conservative. Both are pro-life, NRA-supporting, small government conservatives, but to varying degrees.
Raese calls the Obama administration "unadulterated socialism." Manchin describes the last two years of the administration as a pendulum that has swung too far to the left. "I think the overreaching, the regulations, the intrusions, people are scared to death that the job market hasn't healed itself," Manchin told me. "The government should be my partner. It shouldn't be my provider. It sure shouldn't be my dominator."
Manchin says he supports parts of the health care bill, such as provisions requiring coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, but he wants portions repealed. Raese wants the whole thing scrapped.
Manchin's biggest disagreement with Obama is on the energy reform proposal known as cap-and-trade. The measure which would limit carbon emissions by requiring polluters, particularly coal-fired power plants, to pay a fee, thus driving up the cost of using coal. The measure is so toxic in West Virginia, the second largest coal producing state, that a Manchin ad shows the governor using a rifle to shoot a hole through the House-passed cap-and-trade bill.
On that issue, Raese agrees, calling cap-and-trade "absolutely the most catastrophic bill that was ever presented to the United States, with only the exception of Obamacare."
Manchin has tried to cast Raese as an elite, out-of-touch industrialist, pointing to Raese's objection to a federal minimum wage. Although Raese opposes a minimum wage, he told me the federal government should provide unemployment benefits to laid-off workers. "There is a concern right now, we have a lot of people unemployed," he said. "I think that a government that doesn't have soul is not much of a government."
For his part, Raese has embraced his conservative bona fides. He gave the packed house at the Eisenhower Dinner a heaping dose of red meat during his speech there, full of Reaganisms, Jimmy Carter jokes, and riffs on what is means to be free.
"I am somebody that believes very firmly in free enterprise and capitalism," he told the enthralled GOP audience. "Because that is what made this country great."
And while Manchin may be running away from his party's leaders, he's not running away from his party in the state where Democrats still outnumber Republicans
by nearly two-to-one.
"Every time this country is in need, every time people have been hurt, every time people have been suffering," he said. "It's always been the Democratic Party to step in; we've always been there."
Where it Ends
Supporters of both men have their own theories about why the race is so close, despite Manchin's sky-high approval ratings.
Mike Roberts, a Democrat running for the state house, said Manchin may be a victim of his own success running the state. "He's such a popular governor, I think a lot of people in the state hate to see him go," Roberts said. Although he believes Manchin will win the election, Roberts added, "I do think Obama has been a drag on the governor."
Judge John Yoder, a Republican running for the state Supreme Court, said Manchin simply wasn't prepared for the challenge.
"I don't think the governor had any idea what was going to hit him," Yoder said as he introduced Raese at the dinner. "I think this has totally taken him by surprise."
A trio of polls
, including an internal Manchin survey, in the last week have shown Manchin pulling even with and now beating Raese by three-to-six points. It's news that has Washington Democrats cautiously optimistic, but wondering what kind of team player they will or won't be getting if Manchin is elected and joins the Senate for the lame duck session.
To find out, I asked Manchin which current senator he admires or might emulate if he wins, but he did not name one.
"I've never done that," he said. "I've always been my own person."
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