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Joe Manchin's Fight Shows How Dems Face Uphill Battle Nationwide

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin speaks with President Obama at a memorial service for Sen. Robert C. Byrd in Charleston, W.Va. in July. AP

Time for Political Jeopardy. The answer: this candidate manages to have an approval rating that exceeds 65 percent in his current job, but is tied or trailing in the polls.

The question: who is West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin?

His problems illustrate in fine detail how any association with national Democrats, with Washington power circles, or with President Obama, can drag down an otherwise impeccable candidate.

West Virginians like the job Manchin is doing as governor. But they'd rather him stay as governor. The moment he won the Democratic primary for the Senate seat left open by the death of Sen. Robert Byrd, his head-to-head poll numbers against Republican businessman John Raese have been dropping.

Some voters are no doubt uncomfortable with how Manchin orchestrated his own election - he had some control over the timing of the replacement process, but that doesn't account for the rising popularity of Raese.

Manchin, a former Democratic Governors Association chair, made it clear to the White House and to Democrats that he would run a very independent campaign, one that would smack his party upside the head. That, Manchin has done. He's come out for repeal of parts of the Democratic health care reform bill, opposes ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," is campaigning aggressively for spending cuts and makes sure to note that he's pro-life.

Critical Contests: Interactive Map with CBS News' Election 2010 Race Ratings

Voters don't seem to buy it. Republican ads have been either devastatingly effective or simply on point: the governor Joe Manchin they know and love lusts for power and would be transformed into "Washington Joe" Manchin by the time he set foot inside the Beltway.

"Washington Joe does whatever Obama wants," a blue collar guy says in one ad.

John Raese
In this Aug. 28, 2010, file photo, West Virginia U.S. Senate Republican candidate John Raese speaks with the media at the Hotel Morgan in Morgantown, W.Va. AP

Raese (at left) is not the perfect candidate: he's a John Boehner-country-club type without Boehner's humble background. He wears a Rolex. He's not disciplined. He's one of the several Republican Senate candidates who've openly questioned the minimum wage, and that's not a popular stance in West Virginia. He's prone to overstatement, bragging that he was a Tea Partier before the Tea Party movement existed.

Manchin is a better campaigner. He may have made a mistake by husbanding his resources until October, allowing Raese and Republicans plenty of time to build the association with Mr. Obama. But association or not, Mr. Obama's approval rating in his state is less than 30 percent. Voters there are especially sensitive to Democratic policies like their plans for cap and trade, which would, in the short term, kneecap West Virginia. There's just no way for Manchin to convince voters that Obama's policies can help them.

If Manchin wins this, he's going to win it on his own merits. Special Report: Election 2010

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is CBS News' chief political consultant. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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