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Manchin Does Delicate Dance to Distance Party

CROSS LANES, W.Va. — Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, who by most accounts still enjoys widespread popularity, has a big problem in his bid to succeed the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D). It is manifest in voters like Jerry Chandler.

Chandler, a Charleston small-business owner, represents many registered Republicans who approve of Manchin’s job performance and supported him in 2008 when he was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote. But Chandler, worried that Manchin will go to Washington, D.C., and do the bidding of President Barack Obama and Senate Democratic leaders, plans to vote for wealthy businessman John Raese (R).

“As governor, he has done good. But he follows the party lines nationally. Locally, he’s been a good governor,” the 48-year-old said after listening to Raese speak to students and their parents at Cross Lanes Christian School, 14 miles northwest of Charleston. “When he’s in Rome, he does what Romans do. When he’s in West Virginia, he does what West Virginia does, and he’s scary.”

Raese, a wealthy businessman making his fourth run for statewide office, has capitalized on the Mountain State’s rejection of Obama, the unpopularity of the new health care law here and concern that cap-and-trade energy legislation similar to what passed the House in June 2009 will become law.

In fact, Raese surged into contention after being counted out early in this contest on the strength of a message warning that, while Manchin has been an effective governor, West Virginia can’t risk sending him to Capitol Hill to become a reliable “rubber stamp” for Obama administration policies.

That has, and continues to be, the consistent message employed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Raese, transforming this race into perhaps the most nationalized in the country. Polling has shown the race is virtually a dead heat, with Manchin trailing narrowly in several recent surveys.

“Manchin has done a pretty good job as far as a governor in the state of West Virginia,” small-businessman and registered Republican Daniel Stepp, 67, said, after hearing Raese speak Friday at a business luncheon in downtown Charleston. “But on the national level he’s always backed Obamacare and the far left.”

A ‘Real’ W.Va. Stump Speech

Manchin is fighting back against these characterizations, and he has a wealth of goodwill to draw on.

As the 63-year-old governor walked the 74th annual Mountain State Forest Festival parade Saturday afternoon in the central West Virginia community of Elkins, he could not take more than a few steps without onlookers breaking into spontaneous applause and asking for an autograph or a picture. Manchin, referred to simply as “Joe,” was treated more like a celebrity than a politician — even one with high approval ratings.

“I’m going to vote for Joe Manchin,” said Mary Murray, a 57 year-old registered Republican from Morgantown who was in Elkins for the parade. “I’ve known his family for a lifetime. I think he’s done good for West Virginia and I think he’ll continue to do good for us and the public.”

Manchin’s charisma and ability to connect with voters was acutely evident a few days earlier in Morgantown, during an appearance at the Monongalia County Senior Center that was billed as an official gubernatorial event.

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