Senate Candidates in West Virginia Debate Earmarks, Health Care and Taxes

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The front-runners to replace the so-called "king of pork," the late Robert C. Byrd, laid out decidedly different approaches Monday night to bringing the bacon home to West Virginia.

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 on both sides 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. Manchin is banking on his popularity and track record, 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. "We have a proven record that it works," he said.

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

"There's a lot of good in the bill that Democrats and Republicans can agree on," Manchin said.

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."

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."

Raese also reiterated his call to abolish the federal minimum wage, saying government should not set prices or wages. The free market, he argues, would determine the proper level for wages if the playing field were leveled and businesses were allowed to prosper.

Manchin said he believes in the minimum wage so workers can get "some dignity and some reward" from even menial jobs.

In a free market, he said, the question would become "how low is low enough?"

The candidates also talked about coal and its importance to the economy and about the need for safer mines.

Manchin said his aides are working on state legislation for proper ventilation of underground mines that he would carry to the federal level. The bill will be completed once the investigation into the Upper Big Branch mine disaster determines the cause of a blast that killed 29 men in April, he said. When consensus is reached, the conclusions will be worked into the legislation.

But Raese said government needs to hear more voices when it comes to regulating industry, particularly corporate voices.

"I have never in my life ever been asked by any bureaucrat ever about my input into safety, my input into what we can do. I find that rather odd," he said. "I'd like to see more of the private sector involved, miners involved, people who are experienced in what we do -- instead of a lot of Washington bureaucrats like we're seeing today."