AUDIE CORNISH, Host:
This Tuesday, voters in West Virginia will choose the state's next governor. It's a special election, to finish the term of democrat Joe Manchin, who left the governor's office after being elected to the U.S. Senate. On the ballot, the acting governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, and a Republican businessman named Bill Maloney. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, Republicans are trying to make the race a referendum on someone not on the ballot, President Obama.
BRIAN NAYLOR: President Obama has never been popular in West Virginia. He lost the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton in 2008, the general election to John McCain, and his approval rating in the Mountain State is in the low 30s. So, Republicans believe they can capture the governor's mansion if only they can tie the unpopular president and his policies to the Democrats' candidate for governor. They've been running TV ads like this one:
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Experts say the Obama health care plan will make our economy even worse. So, what's Governor Tomblin doing about it? Absolutely nothing. Stop Obama. Stop Tomblin from implementing Obamacare.
NAYLOR: Republican Bill Maloney is for the most part letting his TV ads speak for him. Several phone calls and emails seeking an interview were not returned. In August, at the opening of his Charleston campaign office, Maloney did give a few clues as to what his style would be if elected:
BILL MALONEY: And above all, we got to fight back Washington. I tell you what, were with Governor Perry here last week in Texas and he's got it right. You fight back Washington, you can win and you can move your state forward. And we need to start doing that here. We're not fighting back the way we should. I tell you one thing, I will actively campaign against Barack Obama and I dare Earl Ray to do the same.
NAYLOR: Political Science Professor Robert Behrman at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia points to polls indicating Tomblin's early lead in the race has been narrowing.
ROBERT BEHRMAN: The race keeps getting closer and I think a lot of that has been this effort by Republicans to make it more of a national focus than a local focus. They saw what happened in the 9th District in New York and they think maybe they can repeat that here.
NAYLOR: What happened in New York's 9th District was that a congressional seat that had been held by Democrats since 1923 was won by a Republican in a special election last month. Analysts said dissatisfaction with the economy and the president were contributing factors. Tomblin and Democrats have been working hard to make sure that history isn't repeated in West Virginia.
MAN: It's my honor and privilege to introduce to you the next governor of the state of West Virginia, Earl Ray Tomblin.
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NAYLOR: Tomblin stands at the American Legion hall in Barboursville, a little town on the western edge of the state near the Ohio River. There's a lunch here of sandwiches and cake put on by Veterans for Tomblin. The conservative Democrat has been endorsed by just about every group that makes endorsements in West Virginia, from the NRA to the Coal Association to the Mineworkers Union. Tomblin tells the Legion audience he'll cut taxes and be responsible with the state's finances.
EARL RAY TOMBLIN: Because this election is going to mean so much on whether we continue to move West Virginia forward doing the right thing, doing the responsible thing for our taxpayers. I appreciate your all's vote, your all's support up there. And thank you. Let's have a victory Tuesday night. Thank you. Appreciate it.
NAYLOR: In an interview, Tomblin insists the Republican attempts to tie him to President Obama haven't had much of an effect, and that voters will be taking a risk if they go for Maloney.
RAY TOMBLIN: It's a special election here. People are concentrated on who can lead this state forward and do we want to continue on the path, which is a positive path compared to the other states, or do we want to, you know, try someone from the other side who has made changes and the kind of chaos that was created in Wisconsin or Ohio or some of the other states?
NAYLOR: Tomblin's latest ad does play up his association with one prominent Democrat, former governor, now Senator Joe Manchin.
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JOE MANCHIN: Working together, we put our state's financial house in order.
RAY TOMBLIN: As governor I've continued to cut taxes and balance the budget.
MANCHIN: Earl Ray is the right man to keep West Virginia on the right course for a better future.
NAYLOR: It's worth noting that Manchin himself was elected to the Senate last November after a campaign in which his Republican opponent tried to tie him to President Obama. The tactic failed then and Democrats are hoping for the same result on Tuesday. Brian Naylor, NPR News.
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