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.
Prior to Manchin addressing about 200 seniors, Colleen Skotnicki, who said she is in her 70s, described herself as an undecided voter unhappy with all of the negative advertising in the Senate race and concerned about the solvency of Social Security, the prospect of higher taxes, and the outsourcing of jobs to other countries.
But after Manchin's remarks, which featured his trademark cheerleading about the 'real' West Virginia, the strength and resourcefulness of its people, and the good shape of the state's finances ' versus the Mountain State's national reputation as a rural backwater ' Skotnicki changed her tune and volunteered that she will support the governor over Raese. 'Hearing his speech, I'm voting for Joe, she said. 'This is how he needs to talk to us.'
The political dilemma for Manchin has been so problematic that even in front of friendly Democratic audiences, he makes assurances that he opposes the health care reform bill as passed and would have voted against it, does not support Obama's energy policies and would work against the White House and Senate Democratic leaders on other issues.
But After several days on the defensive, Manchin ' who previously served in the state Legislature and as secretary of state, appeared buoyed about his chances following the warm reception he received in Elkins. Early voting is West Virginia is scheduled to begin tomorrow.
'I think we're coming together at the right time. We didn't anticipate this race, because I just thought Sen. Byrd would live forever. So with that being said, I just wasn't prepared. I just never felt the day would come,' Manchin said in an interview Saturday afternoon. 'We just took a while to ramp up, and now we're serious. Our people are all serious. I think people in the state are serious. They're starting to look, and they're going to judge you, and I really believe that people in West Virginia judge you on what you've been able to do, not what somebody tells you they're going to do.'
In contrast to Manchin's regular-guy magnetism, Raese is reserved and businesslike, although personable and not without a sense of humor. Where Manchin focuses on pumping up the pride of West Virginians against outsider criticism, Raese's campaign message emphasizes national concerns.
Regardless of the group Raese is addressing, students, parents, industry representatives or GOP activists, he consistently speaks about the country's need to return to Constitutional values, renew the belief in 'American exceptionalism' and prevent Obama from dismantling free-market capitalism. Raese describes himself as to the right of the tea party, deviating from conservative orthodoxy only in his support of government-funded unemployment benefits.
'When I make speeches and when I talk, I talk about things that we can do to make this country better. I talk a lot about capitalism,' Raese said in an interview Thursday evening, following an address to the Association of Cold Rolled Strip Steel Producers at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs. 'When you travel around West Virginia, you don't have to look at any polls... people are angry, they're upset, they're hot ' whatever you want to say. And, the reason they are, they don't like the direction this country is going.'
Raese, 60, is a native West Virginian with deep roots in the state. He owns a number of businesses here that are the source of his wealth. But his wife Liz and two young daughters are legal residents of Florida, which has become fodder for Democrats. The latest ad sponsored by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee even notes that Raese's wife can't vote for him.
Can Manchin Unlock Conservative Support?
Byrd was the longest serving Senator in history until his death in June, and the battle for his old seat has turned into among the most competitive in the country. Both Manchin and Raese are furiously running television and radio ads, and seeking help from national surrogates. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed Raese on Monday, the same day that former President Bill Clinton was in Morgantown stumping for the governor. Clinton won West Virginia's electoral votes in 1992 and 1996, but no Democrat has done so since.
Republican operatives suggest the race will boil down to how well Manchin performs with Republicans and independent conservatives. Raese is expected to continue with his message that Manchin has flip-flopped on his support for the president and would 'rubberstamp' Obama's policies. In a state that still loves its governor, this is one of the only viable campaign themes available to carry Raese to victory.
'The federal government has choked us to death, and with our backs against the wall, we can't afford to have a rubberstamp,' said Chandler, who runs a trailer rental business that he launched a dozen years ago. 'This new administration, which is President Obama, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.], they are nowhere near Main Street, they are nowhere near the heartland of our country and we cannot have someone just going along with the flow.'
Manchin's new ads reveal that the governor is aware that he has been hemorrhaging conservative support. His spots take direct aim at conservative Democrats and Republicans like Chandler, who have supported him in the past. The ads tout his National Rifle Association endorsement and show him firing a gun directly opposite an image of Obama and texts of his signature legislative policies ' 'Obamacare' and 'cap-and-trade.'
'That is where Manchin's message should have been weeks ago. How Raese responds will be critical,' said one GOP operative based in West Virginia. 'Raese has to shore up conservatives and make sure they vote in droves.'