CHARLESTON, West Virginia - Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin held on for a narrow victory in a special election for governor of West Virginia on Tuesday that had tightened after Republicans ran ads tying him to President Barack Obama.

Tomblin, who has been acting governor, defeated businessman Bill Maloney, who has never held elected office, by about 3 percentage points. About two hours after the polls closed at 7:30 p.m., West Virginia MetroNews radio projected Tomblin would win.

With 89 pct of precincts reporting, Tomblin led Maloney by 50 percent to 47 percent, or 131,408 votes to 123,062 votes for the Republican. Three other candidates had 2 percent support or less.

The court-ordered special election had become as much about the Democratic president as about the candidates on the ballot in the last days before the vote, as outside groups poured millions of dollars into the campaign to try to link Tomblin with Obama.

Tomblin's narrow win spared the president and his Democratic Party a third special election loss within the past three weeks, just as Obama's 2012 re-election campaign gains steam.

The Democratic Governors Association spent $2.4 million on the race, and the Republican Governors Association spent $3.4 million, including a spot that began running late last week linking Tomblin to Obama's healthcare law.

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 have been taken as a sign Obama is dragging down his party.

Republican John McCain defeated Obama easily in West Virginia in the 2008 presidential election. The Democrat's popularity has since declined in the state, although the party holds a nearly 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans in West Virginia.

(Additional reporting by Steven Allen Adams; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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