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In West Virginia race, both candidates running against Obama

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David Smith/AP

(Read caption) Bill Clinton and West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin appear at a senatorial campaign rally in Morgantown, W.Va., Monday.

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West Virginia is suddenly emerging as a state to watch this election.

After months of neglect by the national media and national polling groups, attention is zeroing in on the special election (on Nov. 2) to fill the seat vacated by the death of Robert Byrd, the Democratic doyen of the Senate.

Joe Manchin, the state’s governor and the Democratic candidate, is popular and once had a strong lead in the polls. But his opponent, Republican John Raese, has enjoyed steadily rising support, and the state is now a tossup.

Both candidates have been hitting the airwaves hard with ads this past week, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee is now ramping up its media presence.

One clear point of similarity between the candidates: They both want to distance themselves as much as possible from President Obama, who currently has an approval rating in the state hovering around 30 percent.

Governor Manchin’s efforts to do so are about as subtle as a loaded shotgun. Literally. His recent “dead aim” ad features the governor toting a hunting rifle as he elaborates on all the ways he disagrees with administration policies, before finally shooting Congress’s cap-and-trade bill, posted as a target.

In fact, listen to the candidates talk, and you might wonder if there’s really much difference between them.

Yes, Mr. Raese is a conservative Republican: He recently stated that he'd like to abolish the minimum wage. But he’s not all that much further to the right than Manchin, who is an antiabortion, pro-gun-rights Democrat who vows to repeal part or all of Obama’s health-care plan and to protect the coal industry at any cost.

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One effort to rank candidates in various Senate races according to where they fall on the political spectrum put Manchin to the right of Illinois’s Republican Senate candidate, Mark Kirk, and about on a par with Carly Fiorina, California’s Republican candidate.

Which raises the question of just how much money the national Democratic Party will want to pump into this race.

Still, it’s a crucial one for both parties in their fight for control of the Senate, and its neck-and-neck status ensures continued attention through the November vote.

The most recent polls show Manchin making a comeback, after falling behind Raese in the past month. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted in the past week has Manchin up by three percentage points – barely outside the margin of error, but still good news for the governor.

A recent flap over a Raese ad for which a Philadelphia talent agency wanted “hick”-looking actors to play the part of West Virginia voters may have helped. Manchin has certainly been making as much of it as he can.

And Manchin still enjoys widespread popularity. The PPP poll gave him an approval rating of 68 percent. Ironically, that popularity may actually hurt him somewhat in this election: When PPP asked voters whether they’d rather have Manchin as governor or senator, they picked governor, by a margin of nine points.

At this point, the race seems to be settling into a battle over how successfully Manchin can distance himself from the president, even as Raese insists the governor is a “rubber stamp” for Obama’s policies.

“People are mad and scared," Manchin told ABC News on Tuesday. "I'm mad and scared with what's going on in Washington. And it's both Democrats and Republicans that are wrong."

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