A popular, four-term U.S. senator with one of the most famous names in the country does not seem like the kind of person you'd want to face in an election.
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller has two opponents in the Democratic primary this year, including a former state lawmaker who says she can beat him.
Morgantown area resident Sheirl Fletcher served two terms as a Republican in the House of Delegates before leaving office and becoming a Democrat. Campaigning throughout the state, she says people are tired of Rockefeller, who has held his Senate seat for 23 years.
Fletcher and Rockefeller are joined in the primary by Boone County resident Billy Hendricks Jr., a Division of Motor Vehicles employee who ran in the primary against Sen. Robert C. Byrd in 2006.
Unlike Fletcher, Hendricks says he expects to lose, but hopes to draw attention to issues he says are being neglected, including the loss of manufacturing jobs, the federal budget deficit and term limits.
All three candidates join a crowded Democratic primary field, with the presidential race dominating news coverage and public discussion.
"We're faced with serious challenges that call for serious, proven leadership, which makes this an enormously important election," Rockefeller said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has a long list of legislation he wants to pursue, including expanding federal health insurance for children in poorer families, providing returning veterans with enhanced medical care and investing in "clean coal" technologies.
Fletcher, though, believes the state's junior senator is vulnerable on several fronts, including the war in Iraq.
Fletcher, an environmental engineer, is the mother of a U.S. Marine wounded in Iraq. She is critical of Rockefeller's 2002 vote to authorize the war, saying the then-ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee should have known better.
"Other senators took his council when deciding how to vote," she said. "Shouldn't he take responsibility for that?"
Rockefeller has said he was a victim of bad intelligence in casting his vote. Since then, he has sharply criticized the war's handling.
But even more, Fletcher says Rockefeller has lost touch with average West Virginians.
"The people in this state want someone in Washington who understands how difficult it is to make ends meet," she said.
Fletcher says the clearest illustration of this disconnect is Rockefeller's decision to endorse Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary.
"It offended people," she said, and Rockefeller has drawn some criticism over the endorsement, although much of it from supporters of Obama's rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton.
At a rally in Beckley where he endorsed Obama, Rockefeller said the current presidential election is too important "to sit on the sidelines."
"I had to be for Barack Obama, and I had to do something about it," he said.
Five of the state's 10 so-called superdelegates have endorsed candidates in the primary, including three who have endorsed Clinton.
The world of party infighting seems far from the concerns of Whitesville resident Hendricks, whose campaign is motivated largely by his concern that long-established politicians do little to serve their constituents.
"People who make a lifetime career out of an elected office are selfish," he said. Hendricks wants 12-year term limits imposed on members of Congress, which would restrict senators to two terms.
"If they haven't done what they set out to do, they should step down and let someone else try," he said.
Hendricks also wants Congress to exert greater fiscal responsibility, pledging to support a balanced budget if elected. Like Fletcher and Rockefeller, he also is concerned about the faltering economy and wants Congress to enact policies that will keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
Hendricks admits he probably won't win, but hopes to garner 50,000 votes, nearly double his total from 2006. Fletcher is more optimistic, predicting a surprise win over Rockefeller.
That would be, as she concedes, a tall order. Money isn't everything in politics, but the latest federal filings show Rockefeller has more than $3.8 million on hand, while neither of his opponents has yet to file reports of financial activity.
Rockefeller also has been a consistent vote-winner in West Virginia, with his last defeat in a statewide race coming in 1972.
The winner of the primary will go on to the fall to face Republican Jay Wolfe, whom Rockefeller beat in 2002 with 63 percent of the vote.