CHARLESTON, W.Va. — U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin applauded billionaire businessman and Greenbrier Resort owner Jim Justice for entering next year’s race for governor in West Virginia.

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U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)

“Jim Justice has just put his name in the hat, which I think is tremendous for the state of West Virginia, to have someone of his caliber and stature willing to say, ‘Listen, I’ll make some more sacrifices. There’s a lot more that needs to be done for our state. I’m willing to step up and give it a try,'” Manchin said.

During a Tuesday appearance on MetroNews “Talkline,” Manchin (D-W.Va.) stopped short of an all-out endorsement of Justice, who has never run for political office and was previously a registered Republican.

“Until we go through through this primary process that we go through, and then we’ll pick. And if Jim’s that primary candidate, I’d be right there with him,” he said.

Manchin offered no comment about Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall, 02), the former Senate President, who has filed pre-candidacy papers to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in May 2016.

Kessler took that step in March before Manchin announced in April his plans to remain in the U.S. Senate and not seek another term as governor.

Justice later contacted Manchin, according to the senator:

“Jim called me afterwards and said he had a deep desire (to run) and I said, ‘God bless you.’ I said, ‘Anytime we can attract quality people, it’s best for the people of West Virginia,'” Manchin said. “He called me after I made my decision.”

Justice launched his gubernatorial campaign earlier this month in White Sulphur Springs followed by visits to Charleston, Clarksburg, Martinsburg and Wheeling.

Shauna Johnson/MetroNews

Larry Puccio (center) was with Jim Justice (right) when he filed his pre-candidacy papers to run for governor earlier this month.

One of his campaign consultants, Larry Puccio, stepped down in January from his role as chair of the state Democratic Party to take over as chair of the Country Roads PAC, Manchin’s political action committee.

A former chief of staff in Manchin’s gubernatorial administration, Puccio successfully lobbied on behalf of The Greenbrier Resort in the past at the State Capitol—one of eight companies or organizations he represents, according to records on file with the West Virginia Ethics Commission.

“He’s still a very trusted friend of mine and we’re very close on that, but he’s working for Jim too,” Manchin said. “Jim naturally would have gone to someone he thought knew the process, so Larry’s going to give him the advice that I would assume he would give him.”

Manchin denied having a direct hand in Justice’s campaign for governor.

“I’m not involved in that, but I know exactly what Larry would be recommending and advising and bringing the top people to the table,” Manchin said. “They’ll make evaluations, Jim will go out there and do his thing and let’s see how he fares.”

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