CHARLESTON, West Virginia (Reuters) - West Virginians voted on Tuesday in a close governor's race that has become as much about a Democrat not on the ballot -- U.S. President Barack Obama -- as about the two men who are running.
An upset Republican victory would be the third special election loss for Democrats within three weeks, just as the president's 2012 re-election campaign gets under way.
Polls show a razor-thin margin between West Virginia's Democratic acting governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, 59, and Republican businessman Bill Maloney, 53, who has never held elected office and has sought to make the fight a referendum on Obama and a rejection of Tomblin as a career politician.
Tomblin's campaign has fought efforts to tie the acting governor, who is also president of the West Virginia Senate, to the White House.
Outside groups have poured money into the race, even though the winner must run again in the general election in November 2012. The Republican Governors Association has spent $3.4 million and the Democratic Governors Association $2.4 million.
The RGA started running a spot late last week linking Tomblin to Obama's healthcare law in the pricey Washington, D.C., media market, which covers just 13 percent of West Virginia.
Polls opened at 6:30 a.m. and were to close at 7:30 p.m.
The Republicans "are buying expensive," said Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "They realize that it's a bit of a long shot but they felt it was worth trying and they put a lot of money on TV for him."
In September, Democrats lost special elections for U.S. House of Representatives seats from New York and Nevada. Republicans trumpeted the New York victory for a seat held by Democrats for decades, as evidence of voter discontent.
A Republican victory in West Virginia, which has not had a Republican governor for 10 years, would be taken as a sign Obama is dragging down his party. Republican John McCain defeated Obama easily in the state in 2008, and the Democrat's popularity has since declined in West Virginia.
"Democrats believe in the welfare state, and I don't believe in the welfare state," said Mike Helvey, a retired engineer who also served in the Air Force.
But he and his wife, Debbie, a teacher, both Republicans, were debating about whether to vote as they ran errands, because they disagreed with some Maloney policies, such as rejecting federal education grants for the state's schools.
Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans in West Virginia, and Tomblin has led Maloney in every poll. But his lead has narrowed, and a Public Policy Polling survey on Monday showed the Democrat with a 47 percent to 46 percent edge -- a statistical dead heat.
Maloney insisted party affiliations did not matter much in the conservative state. "We all think a lot alike and the party lines don't mean as much as they used to," he told reporters.
A mining engineer, Maloney has campaigned by trying to link Tomblin with Obama and on a platform of smaller government.
Tomblin, who has held state office since 1974, has stressed his experience and West Virginia's relative economic health. The state's jobless rate is 8.1 percent, a point below the national rate.
Some voters said they did not know enough about Maloney. "He just sort of came out of the woods and we don't really know much about him," said Cindy Phillips, a Democrat who voted for Tomblin but has supported Republicans in the past.
Only about 18 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the May primary. More were expected to vote on Tuesday, but experts said it was difficult to say how many.
"A low turnout would favor Maloney because it would make it volatile," said Robert Rupp a political scientist at West Virginia Wesleyan College. "We're so anti-incumbent this year, if you are mobilized at all, you are mad and you are anti-incumbent."
Tomblin, a conservative Democrat, has released ads showing him with Joe Manchin, the former governor whose election to the U.S. Senate led to the court-ordered special election. Manchin has distanced himself from the White House, particularly on opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency, seen in West Virginia as a threat to coal industry jobs.
"I've got a proven track record that I'm the one who's been fiscally responsible for this state to have a balanced budget," Tomblin said.
Additional reporting by Steven Allen Adams; Editing by Xavier Briand and Peter Cooney