On Obama's Coattails, an Uninvited Rider

An ad from Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) plays up his Obama ties.
An ad from Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) plays up his Obama ties. (Haraz N. Ghanbari - AP)
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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008

Just a month ago, Republican strategists were trying to closely link Democratic House candidates to Sen. Barack Obama, convinced that in certain parts of the country Obama would drag candidates from his own party down to defeat.

This week, a Republican senator, Gordon Smith of Oregon, offered a much different assessment of Obama's coattail effect: He included words of praise from Obama as part of an ad promoting his own reelection.

"We just saw it as an excellent way to highlight Senator Smith's ability to work across the aisle, even with the Democratic nominee for the White House," said Smith campaign spokeswoman Lindsay Gilbride.

The outbreak of enthusiasm is a striking shift from the spring, when Republican advertisements from North Carolina to Mississippi to Illinois ominously painted Obama as an out-of-touch liberal bringing his brand of politics to regions of the country that should shun it.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said the GOP will stick to that script this fall "on a district-by-district basis." But a senior Republican strategist involved in House races said that strategy is now largely dead, "except in rare instances, and I'm not sure it was a good idea in the first place."

The tactic initially caused some Democrats to distance themselves from the senator from Illinois, but now most are eager to be as closely associated with his campaign as possible.

In New Hampshire, Democratic Senate candidate and former governor Jeanne Shaheen will campaign in Manchester today with Michelle Obama, whom Republicans have tried to turn into a political liability. Conservative House Democrat John Barrow has persuaded Obama to cut a radio advertisement for him ahead of his July primary in Georgia.

Senate campaign spokesmen for Democrats Tom Allen in Maine, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Al Franken in Minnesota and Rick Noriega in Texas all said they have reached out to the Obama campaign and are pleading for a visit from either the candidate or his wife. Their efforts are not entirely surprising, given Obama's strength in those states during the Democratic primaries.

But Smith is a Republican, and his new television advertisement is unabashed in its attempt to portray Obama and him as partners.

"Who says Gordon Smith helped lead the fight for better gas mileage and a cleaner environment?" a female narrator asks. "Barack Obama." The ad then flashes to an image of Obama's face and his campaign Web site.

Fearing that the spot will confuse voters, Obama's campaign sent out a release Tuesday making it clear that he supports Smith's opponent, Democrat Jeff Merkley.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who headed the NRCC in 2006, when the GOP was swept from power in Congress, said Smith's ad is smart, using the key West Coast issues of energy and fuel efficiency to distance the senator from President Bush and the Republican Party.

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