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Election-eve poll shows a dead heat for governor

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A special election for governor that has attracted national attention, including nearly $6 million in electioneering expenditures by national party organizations, ends Tuesday in an apparent dead heat between the two top contenders.

While the election features five candidates on the ballot, in addition to write-in candidates, the focus has been on Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin, who as Senate president has been acting as governor since November 2010, and Republican newcomer Bill Maloney.

According to a poll released Monday, the race is a dead heat, with Tomblin leading Maloney 47 percent to 46 percent, with 7 percent of likely voters still undecided.

The poll did not include Mountain Party candidate Bob Henry Baber, a former Richwood mayor, nor any of the other independent and third-party candidates on the ballot.

The poll of 932 likely voters conducted over the weekend by Raleigh, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling suggests that Maloney has nearly closed a six-percentage-point deficit reported in a PPP poll conducted over Labor Day weekend.

The polling indicates that a barrage of negative ads aimed at Tomblin has taken a toll in the past month, lowering Tomblin from a plus 25 percent approval rating (50 percent approval, 25 percent disapproval, 25 percent unsure) to a plus 12 percent rating (44 percent approval, 32 percent disapproval and 23 percent unsure).

Polls will be open today from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and on Monday, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant urged voters to shake off any election burnout -- despite this being the fifth statewide election in the past 17 months.

"There will be folks who'll say, 'We're only electing a governor for 14 months,'" she said. "Those 14 months are critical for West Virginia -- look at the previous 14 months."

Tennant said 56,638 voters -- 32,086 registered Democrats, 19,745 Republicans and 4,807 independent and third-party voters -- took advantage of early voting, which ended Saturday.

That's up about 15,000 votes from the May special primary, but about 51,000 fewer early votes than the 2010 general election, which featured the special election for U.S. Senate.

Tomblin closed out the campaign Monday evening with a Democratic get-out-the-vote rally in Charleston, kicking off the party's efforts to get voters to the polls today.

Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said he was not surprised the PPP poll shows a tight race going into Election Day.

"We always knew this race was going to be close," Stadelman said Monday. "We're optimistic West Virginians will remember this race is about what's best for the state, and we'll win tomorrow."

State Republican Party Chairman Mike Stuart said Monday the GOP will redouble its efforts to get voters to the polls today with phone banks and with courier services for voters needing transportation.

He said of the PPP poll, "I've cautioned folks, it only tells us we need to work harder Election Day."

Stuart said a Maloney victory would send a message to Democratic elected officials that the state is at a tipping point, especially since voters won't be inclined to rally around the Democratic ticket in 2012.

"I think the story, if Bill Maloney wins, will be the surprising number of members of organized labor and teachers that voted for Bill," he said.

With none of the three other gubernatorial elections around the country appearing competitive, the electioneering arms of the Republican and Democratic national governors associations poured nearly $6 million of campaign expenditures into the West Virginia race.

That included a $665,400 buy over the weekend that pushed the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee's total spending over $3.4 million. That buy purchased commercial airtime in the pricey Washington, D.C., television market.

In the closing days of the campaign, the RGA attempted to link Tomblin with President Obama -- arguably the least popular politician in the state, with a 28 percent approval rating among state voters, according to the PPP poll -- noting that Tomblin had not joined other states' lawsuits to block implementation of Obama's health-care plan.

Tomblin's campaign countered with an ad featuring U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin -- the most popular politician in the state, with a 61 percent approval rating in the PPP poll -- endorsing Tomblin, calling him "the right man to keep West Virginia on the right course."

The negative campaigning led FactCheck.org to declare that the real loser in the race was the truth, citing three Maloney/RGA ads and two Tomblin/DGA ads that relied on distortions or falsehoods aimed at the opposition.

Otherwise, Tomblin's campaign stressed that, as Senate president and acting as governor, he had helped craft fiscal policies that helped West Virginia to become one of a handful of states to come through the recession with a budget surplus, and made the state attractive to business investments, such as the new Macy's distribution center.

Tomblin also secured virtually all major endorsements from state and national organizations, including business and labor groups, and state newspapers.

Maloney's campaign portrayed Tomblin as a career politician, committed to benefiting himself and family members, and noted that West Virginia continues to rank near the bottom in most economic categories, including per-capita income.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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