President Obama went to North Carolina today. And Kay Hagan had to walk a tightrope.


A tightrope walker performs between two spheres of the Atomium monument in Brussels August 11, 2014. (REUTERS/Yves Herman)

This post has been updated.

When President Obama arrived in North Carolina today, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) was there to greet him on the tarmac.

But if Hagan, running against state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) in one of the most pivotal races in the battle for the Senate majority, had no plans to thumb her nose at Obama, she didn't exactly intend to cozy up to him, either. Her office said in advance that she planned to use any time she has with the president to press him on veterans' issues, a subject she criticized Obama for on Friday.

Hagan's tightrope walk was borne out of political necessity, strategists say. And it's indicative of her broader posture toward the president.

In a purple state where Obama is unpopular overall -- but there are nonetheless pockets of deep support for the president -- Hagan must make Obama one part friend and one part foe.

The president delivered remarks at the American Legion's 96th National Convention in Charlotte. Hagan will speak at the convention after him. There was no plan for a meeting at the event, and Obama will not be doing any campaign events for the senator, who rode a Democratic wave to victory in 2008.

"She doesn't need to diss the president -- that would be disingenuous, anyhow -- she needs to show that she's somewhat independent," said Thomas Mills, a North Carolina-based Democratic strategist.

Obama's approval rating is a paltry 45 percent in North Carolina, according to a recent USA Today/Suffolk University survey, which showed Hagan and Tillis neck and neck. Moderate voters in the state -- which went for Mitt Romney in 2012 -- have grown increasingly hostile toward the president. The state's most conservative quarters have long been motivated to shut down Obama's agenda by tossing Hagan out. Providing any fuel to power attack ads dubbing her a pawn for Obama -- that's something Hagan just can't afford to do.

Carter Wrenn, a Republican strategist, said he thinks Hagan is trying to "take a step back" from Obama and "make it a little easier for somebody who doesn't like Obama" to vote for her.

But to keep her job, she also needs to hold on to the votes of plenty of people who like the president.

North Carolina has a substantial population of African Americans and Hispanics, who tend to view the president in a far more favorable light, and Hagan is working hard to turn them out. There are also a crucial cross-section of younger, liberal voters in the state's Research Triangle -- an area that's home to three large universities -- whose level of participation in November will also be important for Hagan.

"For years I've watched these Democrats who thought they were going to win by out-Republican-ing these Republicans," said Mills. "It's never worked."

After the White House announced Obama's trip to North Carolina, Hagan swiftly released a statement distancing herself from the president on a very specific front: well-documented problems at the VA caused by false-record keeping and long waits for treatment.

"The Obama Administration has not yet done enough to earn the lasting trust of our veterans and implement real and permanent reforms at the VA," Hagan said at the time. "I hope to hear the President address these challenges at the American Legion's National Convention in Charlotte. I will be there to discuss some of the steps I want to see taken in Washington to uphold the commitment our government has made to North Carolina’s veterans."

Republicans, who have already spent millions tying Hagan to Obama in an effort to rile up the GOP base, were eager to use the Obama's visit to make a fresh case the president has her in his back pocket.

"After rubber-stamping the Obama liberal agenda for the past six years, is Kay Hagan finally going to appear in public with the president to let all of North Carolina know how proud she is to support him?" said North Carolina Republican Party spokesman William Allison in a statement.

While Republicans are focusing much of their energy in the campaign on tethering Hagan to Obama, Democrats are trying to closely link Tillis to the state legislature's staunchly conservative agenda. It's an effort to spring the liberal base into action, a tough task in a non-presidential election year.

The potency of these dueling death-by-association strategies could decide the majority. North Carolina is the most purple -- and the most expensive -- of the four states Romney won in which a Democratic senator is running for re-election this year. And that's arguably made it the most decisive contest of all.

"The thing that's going to be telling is whether people stay focused on the General Assembly on the other side of Labor Day or they switch back to a national focus," said Mills.

And so on its way Tuesday to a state where even the smallest gestures of support from the president need to be carefully weighed, the White House chose its words about the incumbent carefully. “Sen. Hagan is certainly an independent voice for the people of North Carolina, and that means she doesn’t always agree with President Obama on a range of issues," Press Secretary Josh earnest told reporters.

The president's support for Hagan wasn't all political peril, Earnest argued. Obama has “outperformed expectations” in North Carolina, something that demonstrates “pretty deep reservoir of support here in North Carolina.”

But that doesn't mean anyone should expect to see more than a brief glimpse of the two of them together on the tarmac. “If there’s an opportunity for the president a to lend some of that support to Sen. Hagan’s campaign, he won’t hesitate to do it,” Earnest said, but “it sounds like Sen. Hagan’s doing a pretty darn good job of making a case for herself right now.”

Will Obama be a drag on Hagan’s campaign? "No," said Earnest.

Arriving in Charlotte, the president stepped off of Air Force One and waved twice to the crowd – and Hagan waved right back, twice. She waited as the president greeted members of the Air Force and other dignitaries. He then gave her a peck on the cheek and they chatted. Later, at the top of his remarks to the American Legion gathering, he gave Hagan a brief shout-out.

Those sorts of presidential gestures may not doom Hagan. But she's not taking any chances.

--Katie Zezima contributed

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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