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By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - West Virginians vote 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 begins to gain steam.

Polls show a razor-thin margin between West Virginia's Democratic acting governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, and Republican businessman Bill Maloney, 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 rejected efforts to tie the acting governor, who is also president of the West Virginia senate, to the White House.

Outside groups have poured millions of dollars into the state race, even though the winner must run again in the general election in November 2012. The Republican Governors Association has spent more than $3 million and the Democratic Governors Association over $2 million. The RGA funded a spot linking Tomblin to Obama's healthcare law that has aired repeatedly even in the expensive Washington media market.

The Republicans "are buying expensive," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at 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, in particular as evidence of voter discontent ahead of the 2012 contest.

DRAGGING DOWN THE PARTY?

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 handily in the state in 2008, when Obama won the presidency, and the president's popularity there has declined since.

Democrats hold a nearly two-to-one voter registration advantage over Republicans in the state, and polls have shown Tomblin leading Maloney. But the Democrat's lead has narrowed, and a Public Policy Polling survey on Monday showed him with a 47 percent to 46 percent edge -- a statistical dead heat.

Analysts said Tomblin would still be considered a slight favorite, but that the outcome will depend on which party gets its voters to the polls.

"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."

Only about 18 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the May primary. More are expected on Tuesday, but experts said it was difficult to assess how many, with Democrats mounting intense get-out-the-vote efforts.

Seeking to separate himself from Obama, Tomblin has released new ads showing him with Joe Manchin, the former governor whose election to the U.S. Senate led to the special election. A conservative Democrat, 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.

"Earl Ray Tomblin is suing the EPA to protect our coal industry and mining jobs, and he always will stand up for what's best for West Virginians," Tomblin campaign spokesman Chris Stadelman said.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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