FRIENDLY, W.Va. -- Many locals around here see Sen. Joe Manchin as one of them, so much so they greet the 30-year veteran of West Virginia politics by his first name more often than by his title.
However, in the Senate, the 66-year-old upstart stands out as a rare breed: A back-slapping, gun-owning Democrat who attracts widespread support from working-class whites in an increasingly Republican state.
Last November, two years after winning a special election to succeed the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Manchin won his first full term with more than 60 percent of the vote. He ran 25 percentage points ahead of President Obama, posting the Senate's top crossover spread in two election cycles.
That success could offer Democrats a road map in GOP strongholds, particularly Southern states that share West Virginia's conservative makeup.
The grandson and great-grandson of immigrants, Manchin -- taken from the Italian "Mancini'' -- calls his delicate walk between his party and his own identity a journey of "balance'' and "common sense.'' And he attributes his success to his small-town upbringing and experience as a state legislator, secretary of state and governor dating back to 1982.
In a whirlwind of stops across the state, Manchin praises federal programs implemented under Democratic presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson that helped West Virginia over the years; but he's also quick to tout the work ethic of beneficiaries of such programs, telling one crowd, "If you think government should do everything for you, I'm the wrong person for you.''
He turns questions about party and philosophy into indictments of Washington acrimony: "I'm a proud West Virginia Democrat, but I'm willing to work with anybody.''
On the revolving fiscal fight in Congress, Manchin bemoans Republicans who reject all tax hikes and Democrats who blast most spending cuts. "They're both right and they're both wrong,'' he says, offering his own solution that seems to combine a little of both. He's also open to reviewing the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers, while calling for increasing the minimum wage to at least $10 per hour.
He insists that environmentalists and the energy industry can reconcile, if government sets "reasonable and attainable'' pollution limits and fossil fuel plants embrace them. As governor, he sued Obama's Environmental Protection Agency and still hammers the administration for "pie-in-the-sky'' environmental standards. Those are necessary tactics for any statewide elected official in this leading coal state, but they're also true to the Manchin form: "We can balance the economy and the environment.''