Gov. Manchin finds footing, but keeps sliding away from his party's policies

PRINCETON, W.Va. — Gov. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDems mull big changes after Brazile bombshell A bipartisan bridge opens between the House and Senate Collins, Manchin to serve as No Labels co-chairs MORE may have found his footing in West Virginia's unexpectedly tight Senate race, but in a state where disapproval of President Obama runs deep, the national party is still casting a shadow of uncertainty over Tuesday's contest.

Manchin told a crowd of supporters Thursday not to believe the "fear and smear" campaign waged against him by Republican businessman John Raese and outside interests, which the governor warned are spending unprecedented sums of money to influence Tuesday's result.

"They've been outspending us almost four to one," said Manchin. "But now people are starting to really think about what's happening here."

The popular governor again distanced himself from Washington Democrats, reminding the crowd of the literal shot he took at the cap-and-trade bill in a recent campaign ad.

"I didn't get it on the first shot," Manchin joked. "I had a couple of practice shots, but I got it."

In the waning days of his campaign against Republican businessman John Raese, Manchin has taken to bashing both parties on the stump and highlighting a fierce economic populist streak, which is exactly what makes most conservative West Virginians Democrats.

"You can call me a different kind of Democrat for sure," Manchin said in an interview with The Hill on Thursday, noting that the Democratic leadership is already on notice that his vote would never be a sure thing in the Senate.

"They know that I have not agreed with them on cap-and-trade. I don't agree on the spending. I think the infrastructure spending should have been a bigger part of trying to jumpstart the economy," Manchin said, warning that in the upcoming lame-duck session, which he would be seated for if elected Tuesday, "I don't know what they're going to bring up, but I'll tell you one thing — I'm committed to no more debt."

Still, Manchin said he's "proud of the Democratic Party when it comes to preserving the minimum wage, when it comes to Social Security and Medicare," calling that the focus for the vast majority of West Virginia voters. "[Republicans] want to do away with all of that."

He also brushed aside suggestions that his opponent has made inroads by tying him to President Obama.

"It was the one campaign they had to run, and they ran it," said Manchin. "It's not going to stick and I don't think it is sticking, from the standpoint that now people are starting to think."

In a room full of Manchin backers in the heart of West Virginia's coal country Thursday, it wasn't hard to see why the popular governor has taken pains to distance himself from the president.

Manchin backer Terry Wells — a lifelong Democrat who said he's never wavered in his support of the governor — admitted there's a simple reason this race remains so close.

"The people here are mad at Obama," Wells said. "Raese's figured out how to use that, and it's working with some of them."

Wells said it's not working with him, even though he hesitated on the question of whether he agrees with the agenda pursued by the president and Democrats in Washington.

"Most of it," Wells said, adding that "some things in healthcare aren't exactly right."

It was one of the common refrains Thursday, even among staunch Manchin supporters: worry over the size and scope of the healthcare bill, which Raese has spent millions to tie Manchin to in TV ads.

"People are definitely down on Obama here," said Nell Jeffries, a retired teacher who called herself a proud Democrat. "I am worried a bit about ObamaCare."

Still, Nell and her husband, Phil, a retired school administrator, are firmly in Manchin's corner, noting that Manchin has proved his independence and dedication to West Virginia over the years.

"He's the only person in this state who has the heart to even come close to replacing Sen. [Robert] Byrd [D]," said Jeffries.

Despite some level of doubt about the president, Democrats like Wells and Jeffries remain behind Manchin, but in a sign the governor knows his greatest vulnerability in this contest is Washington, Manchin continues to put distance between himself and the president.

"Absolutely the president needs to move to the middle and his administration needs to move to the middle," Manchin said Thursday. "And you know what, some of the people on the right need to move to the middle, because you can't govern from the extremes."

The latest polling shows Manchin has reasserted a lead over Raese. The latest Rasmussen numbers have Manchin ahead by three points. A poll from Public Policy puts Manchin's lead at six percentage points.

The race has been a focus for both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Each has spent heavily on campaign ads, with the NRSC echoing Raese's message that Manchin would prove a rubber stamp for the president and the DSCC highlighting a controversy over Raese's ties to Florida, where he owns a home.

With so many Senate seats in play next Tuesday, West Virginia could prove vital to Democrats retaining their majority. It's a seat the GOP must win if it has any realistic hope of capturing the 10 seats it needs to take back the majority.

"It's still a weird dynamic," West Virginia pollster Mark Blankenship said of the race less than a week out from Election Day. Right now, Blankenship said, the trend is in Manchin's favor, but he warns that this race has already proven it can yield "very dramatic changes in just a few days."

For his part, Raese is set to campaign in the Southeastern part of the state Friday with Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeMcCain backs Pentagon nominee despite concerns over defense industry ties GOP senators ask Trump for meeting on biofuels mandate Trump feuds endangering tax reform MORE (R-Okla.) and appear Saturday with rocker Ted Nugent. That follows a campaign visit earlier this week from Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore GOP strategist: 'There needs to be a repudiation' of Roy Moore by Republicans World leaders reach agreement on trade deal without United States: report MORE (R-Ariz.).

Ultimately, Blankenship said Manchin has been able to right the ship by refocusing voters on the brand he has carefully cultivated for years in West Virginia politics.

"The campaign got back on the message of selling Joe Manchin," he said. "And that's the key, because even when he trailed [Raese], his approval numbers never waned."

On Thursday, Manchin told voters if they still weren't convinced he'd put West Virginia first in the Senate, they should think of his first two years as a trial run.

"Give me a chance to take that same work ethic to Washington," Manchin said. "You'll have a real good look-see at me, because I've got to run again in 2012."