CLENDENIN, W.VA. — CLENDENIN, W.Va. - After a recent fire that destroyed several businesses in this dot-on-a-map community in central West Virginia, the local congresswoman, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, came and offered to help "give this town an economic kick in the rear."
Capito talks like that, and when she does she sounds a lot like President Bush. For both, projecting a straight-talking, no-frills style is a big reason they fared well in the 2000 election in a state dominated by Democrats.
Now, Capito is fighting a tough re-election battle that political analysts say will not only help determine whether Republicans retain their slim majority in the House, but also test the important political waters of West Virginia for the president.
Two years ago, Bush became the first GOP presidential candidate to carry this state in 16 years, and without its five electoral votes he would not be in the White House. He may need the state again in 2004.
"Look at the against-the-odds kind of way that I won and that he won," Capito said during an interview between campaign stops. "If I am reconfirmed in my job, yeah, that would bode well for him in his race."
Democrats here, still scarred by Bush's upset win, view the congressional race as a crucial test as well, and as a chance to show that they have found the strategy to combat a candidate similar in style to the president and closely aligned with his agenda.
"We have got to take this state back for the Democratic Party," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the veteran West Virginia Democrat, after delivering a rousing speech in support of Capito's opponent, Jim Humphreys. Byrd told the crowd that Bush had blocked spending on highway construction, health care and education programs in his state, and called Capito one of the president's "puppets" in Congress.
Humphreys, a millionaire lawyer who has used his own money to bankroll his campaign, is in a rematch with Capito, who won by 2 percentage points in 2000. Both camps say that while Capito appears to be the favorite, the race may be just as close this year.
Bush will travel to the state tomorrow for the fifth time as president, both to boost Capito's chances and to curry favor with West Virginia voters who may be crucial to his re-election.
The important question, said Robert Rupp, a political scientist at West Virginia Wesleyan University, is whether Humphreys can convince voters that Capito and Bush portrayed themselves as moderates during the campaign but governed as conservatives when they got to Washington.
"Capito is a version of Bush - a gentler, kinder Republican who says, 'I'm one of you,' and promotes 'values,' which sells in this state," Rupp said. "Humphreys is saying, 'Look, we were hoodwinked.'"
"The race here is like a dress rehearsal for '04," Rupp added. "If [Capito] can sell herself for re-election, Bush should be able to sell himself as well."
Capito, a mother of three and daughter of former three-term West Virginia Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., seems a lot like the president on the stump.
She has an easy charm, as she asks patrons at the Dairy Queen in Clendenin how their chili dogs taste. She speaks off the cuff, as when she told a radio host in her West Virginia drawl that she is "scared as heck" about the election. And, like Bush, she occasionally indulges in barbed playfulness, as in a brief imitation of her opponent's speaking style in which he comes off as preachy in talking about Social Security.
Capito speaks at length about how her GOP ties have helped draw the president to the state. Presidential visits, she said, have improved the stature of a state sometimes ridiculed by outsiders.
"When you watch Jay Leno, we're the butt of jokes, and I don't want that," Capito said. "I promised to bring the spotlight to West Virginia, and I followed through."
Capito tells voters that Bush's agenda is a boost for average West Virginians, saying that he and his Republican team in Washington are fighting to lower the cost of prescription drugs, to reform schools so they are more accountable and to protect doctors from overwhelming malpractice lawsuits.
Humphreys, a former state delegate who amassed his fortune fighting legal battles for workers exposed to asbestos, says Capito and Bush speak to voters about "Democratic issues" to win them over, but never really deliver on their promises.
"Bush sounded like a Democrat in 2000. She sounds like a Democrat now," Humphreys said in an interview as he campaigned at a fire hall south of Charleston. "Democratic values and Democratic goals are what win elections, so they campaign like Democrats.
"It makes it extraordinarily tough," he said.
Bush carried this state, political analysts say, because socially conservative voters liked his focus on honesty and family values. Also, Bush won over some union members who were afraid that his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, would attack their right to carry guns and who were angry that Gore did not campaign here as often as Bush.
Humphreys points to his endorsement from the United Steelworkers of America in this steel state as an important sign that he, unlike Gore, has shored up union support, as well as a sign that voters are paying attention to Bush's record.
The president responded last spring to pleas from struggling U.S. steel companies and their employees by approving 30 percent tariffs on many types of foreign steel in an effort to limit competition for U.S. companies and save jobs. Humphreys argues that the industry is still bleeding jobs because the president did not go far enough. He calls steel "the perfect example" of an issue on which Capito's and Bush's "statements ring very hollow."
Capito boasts that she lobbied Bush to approve the tariffs, and says that even though the tariffs did not go as high as the industry and steelworkers hoped, they already have begun to help the industry recover. She said that while union leaders are supporting her opponent, she has substantial support from the rank and file.
Both candidates say their campaign, whatever the outcome, will send a signal about the political landscape in this state, and whether it has changed since Bush's victory.
Still, Lawrence Grossback, a political science professor at West Virginia University, cautioned that the results of this race will not predict anything for 2004 with certainty. Even if Capito wins, he said, a Democrat could beat Bush if he is better able than Gore to appeal to traditionally Democratic union voters.
Grossback said "a good Democratic candidate will almost always win" in this state and that Humphreys is a relatively weak campaigner.
"There is a certain likableness to Capito," he said. By contrast, Humphreys "has a hard time making personal connections."
Humphreys, a bespectacled, stocky man, was campaigning at a fire hall where most of the 200 bingo enthusiasts only had eyes for their bingo cards. Mid-game, Humphreys grabbed a microphone and began talking at a ferocious pace about Social Security and education - only to attract a few boos and a shout of "Time to play bingo!" from one annoyed player.
Afterward, Humphreys confided: "They get pretty testy when they're playing those bingo numbers."
Humphreys won his primary this year by barely a thousand votes, and many Democratic activists supported his opponent. But they have come to his side since, and now speak about a Humphreys win as critical to restoring confidence in the party in the wake of Bush's victory.
"This is the most important midterm election in decades," said an emotional Senator Byrd.