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W.Va. gov hopefuls court conservative voters

Lawrence Messina

Conservative votes have become a key prize in West Virginia's special election for governor.

The race's eight Republicans in particular have sought the title of most conservative in advance of Saturday's primary. In campaign appearances and ads, they advocate lower taxes and fewer government regulations while opposing same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

The GOP's Betty Ireland and Bill Maloney have even begun exchanging attacks over which represents "true" West Virginia values. Maloney cites Ireland's 2005-2009 term as secretary of state to allege her record is of a "tax and spend liberal Republican," campaign manager Matt Dabrowski said Wednesday.

Ireland, meanwhile, has questioned Maloney's credentials by citing, among other issues, his tolerance of gambling.

"Bill Maloney would be well served by giving us one idea, just one, before personally attacking Betty Ireland," her campaign spokeswoman, Suzette Raines.

More voting-age West Virginians, nearly 42 percent, identified themselves as conservative than as either moderate or liberal during a Gallup survey conducted with 1,538 residents over the course of last year. West Virginia boasted the 20th-largest portion of conservatives among the states in the Gallup poll.

One conservative group, West Virginians for Life, declined to endorse a GOP candidate after concluding that all supported its views. Another, the West Virginia Family Foundation, has given five of the eight GOP hopefuls perfect scores on its candidate questionnaire.

Among other stances, that group asked if the candidates supported further limits on abortion, closing bars at earlier hours and a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Of the Republican field, Ralph Clark and Maloney did not respond to the group's survey. Cliff Ellis received a lower score for saying he opposed school choice tax credits.

Ireland touted her 100 percent score Wednesday, while faulting Maloney for not submitting responses. Dabrowski said Maloney has met with several other conservative organizations, including the rival state Family Policy Council and West Virginians for Life.

"When you're a conservative like Bill Maloney, you want to talk to the groups that communicate to primary voters, and contain primary voters," Dabrowski said.

Those groups include the tea party. A number of groups around West Virginia that identify with that movement have held forums, debates and other events for the candidates. Maloney is among several contenders, mostly Republicans, who have taken part in these.

"(The Democrats), think the tea party is all for the Republican Party," said Terry Craver, president of one such group, We the People of Hampshire County. "We're just providing a forum for the candidates to get their message, their platform out."

Craver's group held a candidate forum late last month that drew three of the GOP candidates. They included Larry Faircloth, a former longtime lawmaker, whom Craver said "told a joke that offended a lot of people as far as being racist, sexist."

The remark involved President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Craver said..

"I was poking fun at the Democratic Party duo which is anti-gun, anti-coal and pro-abortion," Faircloth said Wednesday, referring to Obama and Pelosi. "Other tea party groups have endorsed me. This one chose another candidate."

Craver said Faircloth has apologized to him personally, but declined to issue one to that community. The group does not want him back, Craver said.

"We feel it was totally inappropriate," Craver said of the joke. "He did us an injustice being at our forum and saying that."

Democrats have also jockeyed for conservative votes. Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin touts endorsements from West Virginians for Life and the NRA in a new TV ad. Most of the field opposes abortion rights. The exception is Natalie Tennant, the secretary of state, who has been endorsed by the national group Emily's List for her stance on this issue. But other social issues have not played as great a role in that six-candidate race.

Fairness West Virginia advocates for gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians. Its president, Stephen Skinner, said he's not surprised that the marriage issue has emerged in the GOP primary race and not the Democratic one. But he also noted state law, which requires all marriage license applications to declare that "marriage is designed to be a loving and lifelong union between a woman and a man." It also rejects any same-sex marriage granted elsewhere.

"It's not something that's burning through the Legislature or the courts in West Virginia," Skinner said. "It's a way of signaling that a candidate has a conservative cred."

Skinner also cited how same-sex marriage has gained support in conservative and libertarian circles, while "polls are showing that Americans are re-thinking their views on this issue."

"It's interesting that it's always easy to pick on the gays," said Skinner. "I think we're at the end of an era, and we're not going to see this too much more... As we head into the new economy in West Virginia, we need to look less to divisive social issues, and more to jobs and to keeping West Virginians and talented West Virginians in West Virginia."

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Lawrence Messina can be followed at http://twitter.com/lmessina

The Associated Press