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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In what looks like a rough year for Democrats, a Senate seat they thought was safe is the one held for 50 years by Robert Byrd. When the West Virginia senator died in June, the state's popular Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, announced he would run in the special election to fill the remaining two years of Byrd's term. While most analysts expected Manchin to win in a walk, the contest has turned out to be anything but a sure thing. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: I'm standing in front of the public debt literally - the Bureau of Public Debt, part of the U.S. Treasury that sells savings bonds and T-bills to finance public spending.�As it happens, it's here in Parkersburg,�West Virginia,�

It's in Parkersburg thanks to the late Senator Robert Byrd, who transferred it legislatively from Washington, D.C. Ironically,�Democrats are struggling to hold on to Byrd's Senate seat, in part because of the spending symbolized by that building.

Unidentified Auctioneer: Ladies and gentlemen, if you're an apple pie buyer, hey, here we go. How about 75...

(POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Parkersburg is in Wood County.)

NAYLOR: At the Clark County Farm Bureau's 4-H Pie Auction and Meet the Candidates Forum the other night, there was an array of tasty baked goods on display - along with some politicians, among them Republican Senate candidate John Raese.

Mr. JOHN RAESE (Republican Senate Candidate, West Virginia): All right. Thank you for the Farm Bureau, for a wonderful endorsement. And it's a great pleasure for me to have that endorsement. I appreciate it very much.

NAYLOR: Raese is heir to Greer Industries, a West Virginia conglomerate that owns limestone and asphalt plants, radio stations and the Seneca Caverns.�He's been on the ballot before - unsuccessfully taking on Byrd and challenging Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, and losing a race for governor. This time, though, he says it's different.

Mr. RAESE: I think there is an outcry across West Virginia and certainly, an outcry across America.�People are genuinely upset and quite frankly, Im sort of glad theyre upset. Because if they werent upset, Id have a - you know, a wonder about the American public.�

NAYLOR: They're angry, he says,�about the deficit, and about policies of the Obama administration such as the health-care overhaul and climate-change legislation known as cap and trade,�deeply unpopular in this coal-producing state.

Raese has pumped some $2.4 million of his own money into the campaign. The National Republican Senate Campaign Committee has put in another 1.2 million, buoyed by polls that show Raese with a small lead.�Most of the money is going to TV and radio ads,�tying the popular governor to the not-so-popular president.

(Soundbite of advertisement):

Governor MANCHIN: I'm behind that. I am totally behind health-care reform.

Unidentified Man #2: Sorry, Joe. Our seniors can't afford you to be a rubber stamp for Barack Obama.

Mr. RAESE: I'm John Raese, and I approve of this message because I will be the senator who won't be a rubber stamp for Barack Obama. The only one I'll serve is you.

NAYLOR: Manchin has raised just a bit over $400,000, an amount matched by the Democrats' Senate campaign committee.�The Democrat has been hitting back hard with his ads, aiming at Raese's conservative economic views and his wealth.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: No wonder Raese wants to get rid of the minimum wage. And no wonder he once fired employees from his company, then tripled health premiums on retirees. But what does Raese care?

Mr. RAESE: I made my money the old-fashioned way: I inherited it.

Unidentified Woman: John Raese puts his profits before our people.

Mr. RAESE: I'm in the business of making money.

NAYLOR: Manchin has been governor for six years. Earlier this year, he was a constant presence during the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine last April, that killed 29 miners.�

He's won a wide range of endorsements from groups that don't always back Democrats - the Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, and the West Virginia coal industry.�He says he'll take a West Virginia attitude to Washington.

Gov. MANCHIN: We put our house in order. This federal government needs to put its house in order, its financial house.�This spending's got to stop. Its got to stop. And I have been very clear on that.�And its not me just saying, oh, I think you need to do this. I can go up and show them what we did.

NAYLOR: Raese makes the argument that West Virginia voters should reward Manchin for doing a good job as governor by keeping him in that post.

Back at the pie auction, I spoke with Tom Azinger,�a longtime Republican member of the State House of Delegates.

Mr. TOM AZINGER (Republican State House Delegate): I think people like Governor Manchin personally. I dont think its a personal thing. I think they just want to change the politics in Washington.�

NAYLOR: Still, if Manchin loses in November, Azinger says it will be the upset of his lifetime.� And it could upset a lot of people who've been counting on a Democrat in this seat for more than half a century.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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