- Associated Press - Thursday, July 8, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.Va. | West Virginia’s top lawyer cleared the way Thursday for Gov. Joe Manchin III to call for a special election for the late Robert C. Byrd’s Senate seat in November.

Attorney General Darrell McGraw, responding to questions posed by Mr. Manchin a day earlier, concluded that the governor can declare a special election to fill what remains of Byrd’s term. The Democratic governor sought the legal opinion after joining a growing push to hold a vote earlier than 2012 - the original date set by state legal officials.

Byrd, 92, died last week after more than a half-century in the Senate. He had just over 30 months left in his term.

Traveling to Boston for the annual summer meeting of the National Governors Association, where he is in line to become the group’s next chairman, Mr. Manchin, widely expected to be a candidate for the vacant seat, welcomed the opinion.

“In light of this opinion, I plan to speak with the state’s legislative leadership immediately to determine how we will further proceed in order to reach a conclusion to this matter,” the governor said in a statement.

Pending an election, the governor will appoint someone to fill the vacancy.

While Mr. Manchin is the early favorite to hold the seat for Democrats, West Virginia Republicans have been making steady gains in recent years and GOP nominee Sen. John McCain carried the state in the 2008 presidential election.

Mr. Manchin may now call a special legislative session to settle details such as candidate filing procedures and party nomination deadlines. Mr. McGraw’s opinion found that the governor already has the power to set the parameters of a special election. “Otherwise, the power to proclaim the election would be meaningless,” it said.

West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said Thursday that her office has begun drafting possible measures for a special session. She said the differing opinions about when to hold the election underscore the need to clarify the language in the state election law.

Given the short time before Nov. 2, Mr. McGraw also offered to help ensure the participation of minor parties and overseas military and other likely absentee voters.

Although Mr. Manchin postponed his interim pick while he awaited Mr. McGraw’s legal opinion, the governor said he already has several potential appointees in mind to fill the seat until the election. While declining to provide names, he said they have appeared in press speculation on the topic.

Possible nominees - all Democrats - include former state Democratic Party chairman Nick Casey; his successor, Larry Puccio; former Govs. Gaston Caperton and Bob Wise; Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin; and longtime Byrd aide Anne Barth.

Senate Democrats in Washington have been anxiously awaiting a replacement, with the loss of Byrd’s vote putting final passage of a major financial regulatory overhaul bill into question.

Mr. Manchin, who has enjoyed solid approval ratings throughout his tenure as governor, won re-election in 2008 with nearly 70 percent of the vote and carried all 55 counties. Halfway through his second term, Mr. Manchin is barred by the state constitution from running again for governor in 2012.

Potential Republican special-election candidates include Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. Already running for a sixth U.S. House term, Mrs. Capito would not rule out seeking Byrd’s seat when she joined calls this week for a vote before 2012.

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