Millionaire Republican industrialist John Raese complained that federal earmarks create career politicians in a bloated government and indicated he'd be reluctant to pursue public dollars for projects best left to the private sector.
"I don't think it's the best answer for the problems of West Virginia," he said in the only scheduled debate with Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, aired statewide on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. "I want to bring back the spirit of capitalism ... to create the freedom of an individual."
Raese argues state economies would be better served by cutting taxes and easing regulations on business.
But Manchin said states depend on the federal government for key infrastructure like roads, water and sewage lines, and broadband Internet access. Without government, he said, poor, rural states would suffer.
"The free enterprise system is not going to go there. They're only going to go where the market is," Manchin said. "And for all of us to have an opportunity there has to be a partnership. The federal government and state government should be your partner, not your provider."
The candidates also clashed on federal health care reform, cutting taxes and the federal minimum wage.
Manchin and Raese are running for the seat Byrd held for more than a half-century. Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson and Constitution Party member Jeff Becker are in the running, too, but the two front-runners are locked in a tight and bitter race that has national groups sinking cash into campaign advertising.
Raese, who has twice run for Senate, is chief executive of Greer Industries, which owns a radio network, a newspaper, steel, asphalt and limestone operations, a golf course and Seneca Caverns.
Manchin is a popular governor serving his second term and known even by West Virginians who don't closely follow politics. To a state that witnessed the Sago mine disaster, which killed 12 men in 2006, and the Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed another 29 in April, he is seen as comforter-in-chief.
To overcome that, the Republicans are trying to make the election a referendum on President Barack Obama., telling West Virginians to trust he'll be an independent voice.
Raese called the state of the nation's economy "almost catastrophic" and focused heavily on creating a pro-business environment, saying he would push for less regulation and taxation of corporations. He also advocated making tax cuts for people who earn more than $250,000 permanent, arguing it would stimulate investment.
Manchin, however, said he wouldn't "mess with or increase" taxes during a time of turmoil and touted his own ability to cut taxes by $235 million since he took office.
They also diverged on federal health care reform, which Raese called "pure, unadulterated socialism ... the worst bill that has ever come out of the United States Senate and House."
Raese said he would repeal the legislation entirely, complaining that it supplants what should be doctor-patient relationships with patient-bureaucrat relationships.
Manchin acknowledged problems with the legislation but said there are elements worth keeping, including provisions that prohibit insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions
Medicare, Social Security and the Children's Health Insurance Program cover the needs of many Americans, Manchin said, but there are others who are denied.
"A working person today is the one most vulnerable in our society," Manchin said. "If you're getting up every day and going to work, you're probably the most vulnerable part of our society. That has to change."
Johnson rejected the reference to socialism, calling health care reform "capitalism on steroids."
"You're having to pay a private corporation, and you're under penalty of law for not doing so," he said "This is not socialism by any stretch of the imagination."
The candidates also talked about coal and its importance to the economy and about the need for safer mines.