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Race is tight for Byrd's Senate seat in West Virginia

From Dana Bash, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin and Republican mining magnate John Raese are vying for the Senate seat vacated by the death of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia.
Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin and Republican mining magnate John Raese are vying for the Senate seat vacated by the death of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia.
  • Republican millionaire is making a strong run against a popular governor running for Senate
  • John Raese's campaign is his fourth attempt to win statewide office
  • Raese says he's more conservative than the Tea Party
  • Gov. Joe Manchin calls himself "fiercely independent"

Morgantown, West Virginia (CNN) -- Wealthy Republican businessman John Raese has run three times for statewide office in West Virginia over the past few decades and has never won.

It wasn't that long ago that most political observers here and in Washington thought his fourth campaign would be a losing battle too -- a Senate race against popular Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin.

But now, several public surveys as well as parties' private polls show Raese within striking distance of snatching the seat of the late Sen. Robert Byrd from Democratic hands.

In interview at his campaign headquarters, Raese, who joked that the Tea Party is to the left of him, said he believes voters are now more open to his anti-government views.

"I've been a conservative in West Virginia before that was popular," said Raese. "I've seen a change in West Virginia."

Raese's leading argument to voters fits neatly on a bumper sticker his campaign is distributing: "No rubber stamps."

In television and radio ads, and on the campaign trail, Raese is pounding Manchin -- warning voters he would be a "rubber stamp" for President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Those are stinging accusations in a conservative state that voted decisively for John McCain over Obama, and where the president's approval rating is extremely low.

Video: Close race in West Virginia
Video: Raese: Anger in West Virginia
Video: Manchin talks Senate run
Video: Manchin to run for Sen. Byrd's seat

Still, in any other election year, those charges might not resonate against Manchin, who is incredibly popular in West Virginia.

But Democratic strategists say their internal polling and focus groups show that tying Manchin to Obama, Democratic congressional leaders and their policies is dragging him down.

It could be heard in Milton, West Virginia, along the Pumpkin Festival parade route.

"I think he's doing a great job here and I voted for him both times he's run here in West Virginia," said Dave Ridel, who had just waved to the governor going by, "but going to Washington, it scares me to death that he's just going to be a rubber stamp."

It's a dichotomy that speaks volumes about the frustration voters have with Washington.

Manchin says he knows it's a challenge for him.

"Yeah, they're mad." he said in an interview, "The Democrats in Washington are in control and so absolutely it resonates to them. The bottom line here is that people don't want government on their backs and they want them out of their pocket."

Manchin also admits that the president's unpopularity in West Virginia is a real issue.

"It has made a difference in my race," said Manchin, but quickly noted, "President Obama is not on the ballot. He will not be a U.S. senator. He's definitely not on the ballot in West Virginia. It's me"

The "me" Manchin reminds people of is the governor they really like who has brought the state's deficit down and kept unemployment lower than the national average.

"Our state is stronger now than ever. Most states are struggling to survive," he said. "We have not cut any services. We have not raised any taxes. We're still cutting the taxes, you know, and we have not laid anybody off."

Manchin also boasts about the broad coalition of support for his candidacy, from the AFL-CIO, to the Chamber of Commerce, to the NRA and coal miners associations.

"I am fiercely independent," Manchin said.

He is now working harder to reinforce that image and distance himself from his own party's policies that are unpopular in his state.

Earlier this year, Manchin said he supported the Democratic Party's health care legislation.

Now he wants to repeal all but a handful of provisions, like no discrimination for pre-existing conditions.

"That's a pretty good start. Why don't you start with that? Kill the rest of it. Start with what you agree on," said Manchin.

He also said in an interview that he now believes if the near $800 billion stimulus bill was before him as a senator, he would have voted no.

"You know what? The expansion of that, that's not who I am," said Manchin.

The federal government allocated about $1.5 billion in stimulus money for West Virginia, but Manchin said he would only take part of that, and insisted he would spend it slowly and judiciously.

Manchin and Democrats here are hitting back against Raese by painting the wealthy miner and media magnate as out of touch with West Virginia voters.

Democratic strategists have been pushing the fact that Raese's family lives in Florida, not West Virginia.

The GOP candidate told CNN the reason for that is because his 12-year-old daughter has special needs.

"There are not a lot of services around for that special child, and so we picked out a school that would be a very good school for her," said Raese.

"But we have houses here in West Virginia. This is where I vote. This is where I'm from. I'm running for the U.S. Senate, but I'll do anything I can to take care of my children," he added.

Democrats are also sending around a photo of a pink marble driveway outside of Raese's Florida home.

"I think it's a good freedom of choice and the last time I checked here in America we are free, even to have a pink marble driveway," he said.

But Manchin's television ad hits the Raese-is-not-like-you theme on an issue, not a personal preference: Raese wants to end the mimimum wage.

"Minimum wage is something Franklin Delano Roosevelt put in during the Depression. It didn't work during the Depression and it certainly hasn't worked now," Raese said. "The laws of supply and demand have to start working. We have to get back to free enterprise in this country."

He emphatically defended what he called his "conviction."

"Minimum wage has never worked in this country. It's something that hurts a lot of youth employment in this country," he said.

The GOP Senate candidate also wants to eliminate the Department of Education, which he calls redundant to what the states are doing, and get rid of the Department of Energy too.

"It costs us $32 billion a year to have the Department of Energy. They don't drill wells and they don't dig mines," Raese said.

If Raese makes it to the Senate, he says he'll also vote to do away with the Internal Revenue Service.

"We spend millions of dollars every year just for the right to pay our taxes, but once again, do we really need to do that? Why don't we simplify it?" asked Raese, who says he is considering a "fair" or flat tax.

It is unclear how much support Raese has for those views in West Virginia.

What is clear is that to beat the popular governor, he's going to have to rely on a lot of voters like Nathan Rose, the manager at First Watch diner in Charleston.

Rose said in an interview that he doesn't know a lot about Raese, and doesn't much care.

"I just know that the primary thing about him is that he's going to oppose Obama," said Rose. "That's what matters to me."