WHEELING, W.Va. — Second-term Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin won re-election with ease a little more than 22 months ago and has the support of both organized labor and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as he runs for the Senate. But he still finds himself in political trouble.
Chalk that up to President Barack Obama's deep unpopularity in West Virginia and persistent efforts by Republicans to link him to the governor.
West Virginia, which hasn't sent a Republican to the Senate since 1958, is one of a dozen or more states where the GOP is trying to use the president as a weight to sink Democratic candidates.
With a disciplined drumbeat, Republicans hoping to gain control of the House and possibly the Senate are painting Democrats as mere yes-men to the president and the party that controls Washington. In Indiana, Republicans are airing a television ad with video of Obama and Democratic Senate hopeful Brad Ellsworth. In Missouri, Republicans are using footage of Obama with Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan.
Take that strategy to West Virginia.
"If you want an Obama rubber stamp, Manchin is your guy," Republican candidate John Raese routinely tells voters.
The race is to replace the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who served more than a half-century and was widely known for sending billions of dollars in federal funds to his state for highways, federal installations and more. Raese says he's opposed to earmarks.
"Generally speaking, D.C. is not a popular place right now," said Rod Snyder, vice president of the Young Democrats of America and a native of West Virginia.
"I have an idea who I'm voting for, but I haven't made up my mind for sure," said Brett Bowlen, a regional sales executive who voted for both Obama and Manchin in 2008. "It's really going to be a heated race and I want to hear more, just to be sure."
Obama got only 43 percent of the vote in losing West Virginia in 2008, but Manchin coasted to a second term as governor with 70 percent.
Manchin declined to be interviewed, but Democratic strategists who follow the race said the governor must find a way to separate himself politically from the president. Republicans hope to prevent that, and keep reminding the voters of the connections between the two:
—Manchin supported energy legislation that passed the state legislature calling for a 25 percent reduction in the amount of coal that West Virginia power plants can use over the next 15 years, an idea similar to what national Democrats are pushing. "It's Obama's cap and trade bill, West Virginia style," an announcer says in one Raese television ad.
—Manchin supported Obama's signature health care overhaul, which polls poorly in the state. Raese calls it socialism rooted in bureaucracy and says he wants to repeal it.
—Manchin accepted federal economic stimulus money for his state, but he said it wouldn't "make a big difference in the job market." Republicans, including Raese, called it a boondoggle that has bloated the deficit.
"John's strategy is to run against Obama and expose Manchin for all the times he's said he's with Obama," said Eric Frankovitch, a Raese adviser who has known him since 1984, when Raese ran for the Senate against then-Gov. Jay Rockefeller. "When voters learn about Manchin's record, it's not a hard choice."
That choice will be made more clear by outside groups. The National Republican Senatorial Committee jumped into the race last week and is spending $1.3 million in ads against Manchin; the National Rifle Association, typically a supporter of Republicans, is backing Manchin but has yet to commit spending.
That's not to say Democrats and their allies are without their own attacks. They have seized on Raese's vast personal wealth, which he inherited, and mock him for the pink marble driveway at his Florida vacation home. Raese says the drive is peach-colored tile, and not of his choosing.
He has supported dismantling portions of the federal government, including the departments of education and energy. "When was the last time they made energy?" he recently asked employees of an insurance company.
But Raese's anti-government rhetoric has its limits.
When a Delta Airlines pilot complained to Raese about what he calls unfair deals that allow international companies to buy U.S. planes at lower interest rates than U.S. companies, the candidate vowed to use the Justice Department to go after such sweetheart deals.
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