SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - Republican John Raese's unrelenting portrayal of Sen. Joe Manchin as anti-coal and in bed with an "anti-West Virginia" Obama administration is "ridiculous and absurd" and "a bald-faced lie," the third-party candidate in the race said Tuesday night.
The Mountain Party's Bob Henry Baber became an unlikely defender of his Democrat opponent as Raese's assault wore on, punctuating his point with a profanity at the end of an hourlong debate at Shepherd University - as it was airing live on the college radio station.
Raese demanded an apology, as did at least one member of the audience.
"I apologize for the use of that phrase," Baber quickly replied. "I will change it to 'bull crap.'"
Manchin won the endorsement of the West Virginia Coal Association this week. Baber says both he and Raese are too close to coal operators. He dismissed both as "Republicrats" and insisted he's the only true Democrat in the race, concerned about balancing energy needs with the environment, among other things.
From the opening moments, Raese pounded away at Manchin's party affiliation and supposed allegiance to President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He repeatedly invoked a football analogy, accusing Manchin of going to Washington not to play for the Redskins but the "Washington Senators," with Obama as quarterback.
"Joe's heart's in the right place, and we know that," Raese said. "But the problem is that Joe is on the wrong team."
Manchin ignored most of the jabs, focusing instead on his record, first as governor and now as a senator, and his claims of working across party lines for the greater good.
"The only team I belong to is Team America and Team West Virginia," he said, declaring himself "the most centrist member" of the Senate.
In their continuing battle to out-love the coal industry, Raese declared that if he's elected, he will challenge the president. "I think I might be his worst enemy," he said.
But Manchin said he's not afraid to fight his own party for the good of his state.
He pointed to lawsuits he filed against the Environmental Protection Agency when it adopted new rules that applied only to Appalachian surface mines and when its actions wrongly intruded on the state's authority to handle mine-permitting and water- pollution issues. In both cases, a federal judge ruled the EPA overstepped its authority.
"There is a war on coal," Manchin said, "because they're treating Appalachia differently."
West Virginia has no problem complying with federal standards that protect water supplies, he said, but it needs more time to do so.
Both Manchin and Raese said tough new EPA regulations are at least partly to blame for thousands of layoffs across the Appalachian coalfields this year. But while Raese refused to answer a question about whether the industry would still be in decline without the EPA, Manchin also acknowledged the cyclical nature of the business and changing global markets as challenges.
Baber, however, said it shouldn't surprise anyone that utilities are shutting "antiquated coal-belching power plants" and switching to natural gas. And West Virginia's mining industry has long been behind its western competition in production.
"It's in decline not because of the EPA. It's in decline because Wyoming is kicking our butt," he said.
Manchin won a special election in 2010, defeating Raese by 10 percentage points to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd. He's now seeking re-election to a full six-year term.