Joe Manchin in the Middle

Michael Catalini

During Joe Manchin's heated 2010 Senate campaign, some West Virginians worried about casting their vote for the popular two-term governor. "I don't trust that Manchin won't go over there and help him," 52-year-old Paul Van Devender told Time. Him was President Barack Obama. "Best to keep him here. He's done good here," Van Devender said.

Two years and three months later, Manchin has carefully cultivated the kind of record that defies traditional--and simple--political prediction. On Thursday, Manchin was the lone Democrat to vote nay along with tea party Republicans on bipartisan legislation to raise the debt ceiling that is also backed by the White House. Zig. Earlier in the week Manchin announced his support for former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, Obama's controversial pick for secretary of Defense and showered him with praise at Thursday's Senate hearing. Zag.

That's life in the upper chamber for a conservative Democrat, a disappearing breed of lawmaker whose ranks could thin even more in 2014 with seven red-state Democratic seats in play. Manchin's behavior shows what happens when conservative home-state politics crashes against the national Democratic political reality--even when an election is nearly six years away. Manchin won't face voters again until 2018.

His party controls the Senate and White House, but its party leaders are much more liberal than he is. West Virginia voters are culturally conservative, vote Republican in presidential elections and gave Obama a 32.6 percent approval rating, among the lowest in the nation, according to recent Gallup polling

Manchin's office did not reply to questions by deadline, but other Democrats familiar with West Virginia politics explain that Manchin's behavior makes sense when viewed from Charleston or Morgantown.

"You're just real careful with what you say and you have to be real consistent with what you say to different audiences," said Michael Oliverio, a former Democratic West Virginia state senator. "We're in the Internet age of politics where you can't say one thing to one group and something else to another group."

The examples of Manchin hopping to the middle aren't limited to just this week. Very soon after the Sandy Hook shooting, Manchin went on morning television and called for action on gun control. He quickly became known by the epithet "the Democrat with an A rating from the NRA," a conservative Democrat from a red state who felt he could speak in favor of gun control. Then he backtracked, saying the political realities of Congress would make an assault weapons ban difficult to pass. Then he and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois went to work on their own background-check bill, according to media reports.

If your head's not already swiveling, just wait. There's more. 

Manchin tacked to the right and voted against a proposal that would let gays serve openly in the military when he first came to the Senate. This week, he tacked left and backed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's decision to allow women to serve in combat zones, saying, "I am proud of all of our service members - both men and women," according to a statement.

The key for Manchin is avoiding the kinds of political trip wires that could cost him at home. So far, he's been able to do that. In the most recent edition of the National Journal vote ratings, Manchin was among the most centrist members in the Senate, an approach that paid off for him at the polls. In the 2012 rematch against Republican John Raese, Manchin won by 24 points.

"There will be things at the national level where more liberal Democrats would see things different," Oliverio said. "But I'm sure some there are some conservative Republicans who wouldn't see things the way he would. … But it's trying to figure out that line, how to walk that line."