In West Virginia, what matters most is whether a candidate can be trusted to fight vigilantly on behalf of coal. Raese argues that Manchin's old alliance with Obama ought to be viewed as disqualifying.
"He's on the wrong team," Raese said of Manchin, adding: "And it's puzzling and disturbing to many West Virginians that he won't even say who he's voting for. I'm for Governor Romney. Why won't Joe tell us whom he supports? ... What does it mean?"
Asked those same questions, the Obama campaign declined to comment about the meaning and impact of Manchin's decision not to endorse the president. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee did not respond to requests for comment.
Although some polls place his advantage over Raese at about 30 points, Manchin is taking no chances, and is careful at nearly every stop to distinguish himself from Obama and what he calls "Washington Democrats." Last week, at a Chamber of Commerce "Meet the Candidates" breakfast in the southern West Virginia city of Beckley, Manchin told his audience that Washington is "discounting coal." Later that day, he repeated his differences with the Obama administration during an address before a group of veterans in Bluefield. "I respectfully disagree with the president on the lack of an energy policy," he said, before skewering EPA regulations and mocking what he considers the anti-coal emphasis of environmentalists. He elicited chuckles when he declared, "I found out that common sense is not too common in Washington."
Among the veterans listening to him was 75-year-old Al Hancock, the lone African American in the room, reflective of a state whose population is only about 3 percent black. Hancock regards the senator as a family friend, appreciative of the advice and encouragement that Manchin has given over many years to Hancock's son, Phil, a Washington lawyer for Amtrak. But Hancock's gratitude has left him no less disappointed with Manchin's unwillingness to support Obama. "I'm on the president's side," Hancock said after the senator's remarks. "Democrats should stick together."
Hancock does sympathize with the political pressures on his friend. "People here hate President Obama, probably partially because of the way they see him on coal," he said. "If Joe had come out for President Obama, a lot of people in West Virginia would have held it against him, even though I still think Joe would win big. But even popular candidates] aren't taking chances when it comes to the president."
Listening to Hancock, 71-year-old Pete Sternloff, a fellow Vietnam veteran and a Bluefield official, nodded. "Obama will be lucky to get within 30 points of Romney here, which helps me understand why Manchin isn't supporting] him," said Sternloff, a staunch Obama supporter who has given up hope that the state's other uncommitted Democratic candidates will embrace the president in the campaign's final days. "Their Republican] opponents would just love for them to endorse; it'd give them an issue."
Still, questions about Manchin's elusiveness persist. "When have you ever heard of a senator not saying if he's going to vote for a president?" Raese demanded. The doubts about Obama among local candidates transcend class and race in West Virginia, where virtually everyone knows someone involved in the coal industry. Nearly every political discussion begins and ends with a reference to the loss of coal jobs in the state during the president's term.
The office-seekers distancing themselves from Obama include Tony O. Martin, an African American candidate running in Beckley as an independent for the West Virginia House of Delegates. "I'm up in the air about the presidential] election," says Martin, a Manchin supporter who echoes many of the senator's concerns with Obama. "The ramifications of the administration's EPA on costs and coal jobs still have me concerned. Probably leaning a little toward the president, but still up in the air."
Manchin, who earlier in the campaign indicated that he was considering both Romney and Obama, now says he won't vote for the Republican. But the suggestion that this leaves only Obama triggers a flurry of additional qualifiers from him. He swiftly adds that he is "having a hard time" envisioning that he might vote for the president.
"When I say, 'I'm having a hard time,'<#148> he explains, "I gotta make my decision just like the American people, okay? ... And it's hard right now to support Obama] with where the country is and with where he's come from the last four years."
If the president gets trounced in coal states, Manchin thinks his old ally will have only himself to blame. "Basically, there's an awful lot of fault there for the overreaching of a government agency which is working against you, not with you," he says, referring to the EPA. "When you don't feel the government is your partner, but more your adversary and enemy ... you got a problem."
So he won't be voting for Obama?
"I'm having a hard time," he repeats enigmatically.
This hangs there. He smiles. "With all respect, it is what it is."