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updated 10/4/2011 4:53:41 PM ET 2011-10-04T20:53:41

A Democrat who appeared to be the odds-on favorite has found himself in a tight race as voters went to the polls Tuesday in a special gubernatorial election seen in part as a referendum on President Barack Obama.

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Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and GOP candidate Bill Maloney are vying to finish out the term left vacant by Joe Manchin, a well-liked governor who stepped down after winning a U.S. Senate election. Tomblin has had to fend off questions about how his votes in the legislature affected his mother's greyhound breeding business and other ads have sought to tie him to the president, who lost West Virginia in 2008 and remains wildly unpopular here.

"We don't want Tomblin back in there," said retiree Janet Varney, who voted for Maloney along with her husband. "We just believe he will follow Obama's policies — and we don't agree with Obama's policies."

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Election officials expect light turnout. Early in-person and absentee ballots equal less than 5 percent of the state's registered voters, which is considered low for a general election.

Tomblin, a Democrat like Manchin, has campaigned as his rightful heir. As Senate president, Tomblin has been filling the vacancy as called for by the state constitution. The veteran lawmaker has also helped shape the recent policies that he and Manchin credit for pain-free balanced budgets and revenue surpluses at a time when other states continue to struggle.

Two months after Manchin stepped down, the state Supreme Court ordered an election within a year of his Nov. 15 departure.

Randy Humphrey, a Democrat who voted for Tomblin, said he would rather not have voted at all.

"They should never have had this election," the 60-year-old Humphrey said. "They should have waited until next year and done it when they were supposed to."

Maloney, 53, has invoked the state's still-dismal rankings in such areas as income and labor force participation. The drilling engineer has touted his experience as an employer while vowing to take West Virginia in a new direction by aggressively targeting its tax structure, regulatory policies and court system. He has also campaigned on his contribution to the rescue plan that freed the 33 trapped Chilean miners last year.

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Maloney and the Republicans fault Tomblin for refusing to join the lawsuits against the federal health care overhaul. They are angling for an outcome similar to last month's upset in a New York City special congressional election, in which Obama's favorability loomed large.

Tomblin is hoping for a replay of last year's U.S. Senate special election, when Manchin beat back efforts to tie him to Obama. Like Manchin, Tomblin has sparred with the Environmental Protection Agency over its coal mining-related policies. Tomblin continues to pursue a lawsuit filed by Manchin challenging the agency's handling of permits.

Tomblin, 59, hails from Logan County, and has represented the heart of the southern coalfields as a legislator since 1974. The mining industry has been crucial for the state's economic and government fiscal health during the Great Recession. West Virginia's Coal Association has endorsed Tomblin, and the energy sector has been his chief source for campaign cash. But West Virginia has not elected a governor from the southern part of the state since the 1960s, and the GOP has seized on the region's reputation for political corruption in this race.

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Both Maloney and the Republican Governors Association, which has spent at least $3.4 million attacking Tomblin since late August, made an issue of a greyhound breeding business run by his mother. They allege that Tomblin has wrongly voted on issues relating to a state fund that benefits in-state greyhound breeders. Tomblin responds that the outcome of races, and not state officials, decide who reaps fund proceeds.

Tomblin and America Works USA, bankrolled by the Democratic Governors Association, have targeted Maloney over whether his businesses have paid their taxes on time and enjoyed tax credit policies that Maloney has criticized in the campaign. America Works had devoted $2.4 million to negative ads as of last week.

Though West Virginia ranks low for per-capita income and high for poverty, as Maloney has said, its unemployment rate remains below both the U.S. rate and that of more than half the states. West Virginia has begun gradually cutting both business and consumer taxes, while improving its Wall Street credit rating and emergency reserves. Democrats hope such bright spots will help sway voters Tuesday. Tomblin also is touting endorsements from groups ranging from the National Rifle Association and the state Chamber of Commerce to the United Mine Workers union and West Virginia AFL-CIO.

Six other third-party, independent and certified write-in candidates also are running. Tuesday's winner will have to resume campaigning almost immediately to keep the seat: It's up again in 2012 for a full four-year term.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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