CHARLESTON, W.V. -- If anyone doubts that next week's elections are a referendum on President Obama, they probably don't live here. There is no starker example of the president's drag on an otherwise popular candidate than West Virginia's Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, who is running for the Senate -- and struggling mightily.
From a distance, Manchin would appear perfectly positioned to serve out the term of the late Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, who died in June. Manchin is the most popular governor in the nation, with an approval rating of 69 percent. The Democratic state legislature arranged for the special election to be conducted on the most favorable terms for him. And his Republican opponent, John Raese, seems a perfect foil in one of the nation's poorest states, a wealthy businessman given to bragging that he acquired his money the old-fashioned way, "by inheriting it.''
Yet most polls in the last few months have shown Raese in the lead. A Fox News poll released on Tuesday had Raese up narrowly, 48-to-46 percent. It left no doubt about why Manchin is struggling: Obama's statewide approval rating was a meager 29 percent.
More than anywhere else, Obama is the issue here, and both candidates have tailored their campaigns accordingly. Raese has consistently dubbed his opponent a "rubber stamp'' for the president. He shrewdly refers to the race as "the 10th seat,'' suggesting that his victory would hand control of the Senate to Republicans (which it might), the ultimate rebuke to Obama.
Manchin has vigorously played up his independence, even suggesting that he might not support Obama in 2012. He is certainly no liberal, having won the endorsements of the National Rifle Association and the West Virginia Coal Association. For good measure, he announced a few weeks ago that he would sue the Environmental Protection Agency for blocking mountaintop-removal coal mining.
But in coal-rich West Virginia, the twin burdens of a deeply unpopular president and the cap-and-trade climate bill championed by the White House have often seemed insurmountable. Manchin's most revealing television ad shows him loading a rifle, taking aim, and firing at a copy of the cap-and-trade bill. Hard to emphasize your opposition more than that! But the most effective ad is the Republican billboard dotting the state that says simply, "Obama Says Vote Democrat.''
Raese was no one's obvious bet to mount a serious challenge. Three times before he had run for statewide office and lost. He's a plutocrat who looks the part, with snowy white sideburns, banker's pinstripes, and a sonorous voice from his early days as a radio presenter, before he acquired a media empire and a limestone and steel company. He is amiable, but also a bit odd. Much of his speech at the Republican Victory Gala dinner on Friday night was devoted to venerating Ronald Reagan, which is standard Republican fare and always good politics. But his praise centered on Reagan's decision to invade Grenada.
Manchin's best hope may be that a race dominated by Obama ends up turning on a matter of local culture. Politico recently broke the news that a casting call for a Republican television ad for Raese had solicited actors with "a 'hicky' blue collar look -- these characters are from West Virginia, so think coal miner/trucker looks.'' Manchin pounced on this episode as having "insulted the people of West Virginia,'' and for a time the campaign turned to something other than Obama. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which sponsored the ad, eventually fired the consulting firm responsible for it.
Since then, Manchin's attack ads have focused on Raese's West Palm Beach mansion, the grace note being a sneering reference to its "marble driveway,'' calculated to arouse resentment among the many West Virginians whose own driveways are not even paved. The fact that Raese's family lives in Florida (and that his wife cannot vote for him), has also driven the distinction home.
A longtime Democratic stronghold, West Virginia is rapidly turning from blue to red. Bill Clinton won the state twice, but Obama seems certain to lose it in 2012. If Manchin succeeds in holding off Raese, the path ahead won't get any easier for him. Two years from now, he'll face reelection, with the added burden of appearing on the ballot with Obama.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.