CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Leaning on two canes, Sen. Robert C. Byrd hardly looks like a billion-dollar industry — or "Big Daddy," as the 88-year-old Democrat calls himself.
No matter: Voters once again are looking beyond Byrd's age to his political guile — and the truckloads of federal dollars he's steered to West Virginia — as they consider whether to give him a record ninth term in the Senate.
"It's not that we deserve more money than other states, but if he wasn't there, we probably wouldn't get as much as we should," said Ally Hagsett, a Marshall University sophomore and Republican. "While he's alive, we'd better get as much as we can."
With Byrd, the getting's often good: In the last decade alone, he's brought home more than $2.2 billion to West Virginia. Today, it's difficult to travel more than a few miles without coming across something plastered with his name — a building, a road, even a giant radio telescope.
This summer, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history played up that role when he dedicated the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center at Marshall.
"I rolled up my sleeves to do the work in Congress, to secure the federal funding," Byrd told the crowd. "Yeah, man, you're looking at Big Daddy!"
Democrats and Republicans alike see the powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee as the state's Santa Claus. And they shrug off any suggestion that Byrd's age is a handicap: Byrd's longevity puts him in line to become committee chairman, if Democrats win control of the Senate.
"It's like he's been in there 100 years, but that's all right by me. He does his job. He's done a lot for the state," said Lou Feazell, a Fayetteville grandmother.
John Raese, the Republican challenging Byrd, recently made an issue of the senator's age. Raese, a 56-year-old Morgantown media owner and heir to an industrial fortune, said he wouldn't hire the senator because of his physical appearance.
In addition to using canes, Byrd's hands tremble — a condition he dismisses as a "cosmetic malady."
"I was alarmed at his physical and mental appearance when I talked to him," Raese told the Charleston Daily Mail. "The business I'm in, I can't have that. Nobody can have that."
In West Virginia, however, Byrd's age puts him in good stead. The state ranks behind only Florida and Pennsylvania with the highest percentage of residents 65 and older.
"He's getting a little old, and I do start to worry about his decision-making," said Susan Michener, 43, of Shepherdstown, who supports Byrd but otherwise votes Republican. "But my dad's in his 80s and he's sharper than I am."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee tapped Raese to run after other top state Republicans, including Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, declined to do so. Raese has spent more than $2.2 million on the race.
The Republican, who in the 1980s made failed bids for Senate and governor, has tried several tacks against Byrd, including making an issue of his age. Raese also has criticized Byrd's opposition to the war in Iraq, his votes on taxes and his pork-barrel politicking. His campaign maintains Byrd is vulnerable.
"Senator Byrd understands that he's facing a formidable opponent, and we see that by how actively he has been campaigning," said Gary Abernathy, a Raese campaign consultant.
But Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said Raese largely has served to solidify Byrd's base.
"Byrd's proved that he can be a campaigner," Rupp said. "He made himself visible when his opponents probably hoped he could not run an effective race."
The race took a nasty turn in September, when Byrd suggested in an interview that Raese's late father would have supported him over his son. Raese replied with an ad that featured Byrd's use of a racial epithet on a 2001 television news show.
The ad helped revive memories of Byrd's 1940s membership in the Ku Klux Klan, and similar episodes that have marred Byrd's political career. Byrd opposed integrating the military, and filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
"I'm very offended that he's in a position of leadership, and acts as if it's OK to him to have these views, and that's not cool," said Sam Neal, 25, co-owner of a clothing store in Morgantown.
But Neal, who is black, said he wouldn't necessarily vote for Raese. Neal said he knew little about his fellow Morgantown businessman.
Byrd has repeatedly apologized for his prior acts of racial intolerance. In memoirs published last year, he called his time in the Klan "an extraordinarily foolish mistake." Supporters say they believe him.
"I think his views on race have changed over time," said James Butcher, a Fairmont State University staffer.