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On Obama's Coattails, an Uninvited Rider

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.

Smith was one of the first senators to endorse presumptive Republican nominee John McCain during the primary season, but, Reynolds said, "at the end of the day, although a lot of Republican strategists can say Oregon is in play, it would be a surprise if he wins it."

Remarkable as Smith's imagery is, Barrow's advertisement may be more telling. In May, Republicans tried to use the specter of Obama to sink another Southern Democrat, Travis Childers, who responded with an ad that said he had never sought Obama's endorsement and had never met him.

Childers won his northern Mississippi district by a wider-than-expected margin, in part because Democratic strategists cited the anti-Obama tactics to rally black voters. The same dynamic -- anti-Obama attacks followed by a Democratic victory -- played out last month in a special election for a House seat in the Baton Rouge area.

Barrow, who beat his Republican opponent in 2006 by 864 votes, might have been as skittish as Childers, but he decided that Obama's endorsement could only help him in an unanticipated primary fight against African American state senator Regina Thomas -- as well as in the general election. Just as Childers benefited from black voter turnout, Barrow, who is white, believes that Obama can rally an often-skeptical Southern black electorate to him.

For his part, Obama decided Barrow had a better chance of holding the seat -- whose district stretches from Savannah to Augusta -- than the more liberal Thomas. Democratic strategists said the primary contest could serve as a test of Obama's strength outside Atlanta, in a state that he intends to contest.

Obama's efforts on behalf of Barrow also jibe with his efforts to broaden the electoral map.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe laid out that plan yesterday, predicting that the campaign's "50-state strategy" will help Democrats down the ballot. Obama ads will soon be on televisions in traditional swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin, as well as in the longtime Republican strongholds of Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, Alaska and Montana.

The campaign will dispatch workers to some states, such as Wyoming and Texas, not to win them but to help Democratic congressional candidates rally voter turnout.

Republicans scoffed at the strategy yesterday. Spain noted that at least half a dozen House Democrats, including some in districts where Obama lost badly to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the primaries, have refused to publicly endorse Obama. One of them, Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) called Obama "the most liberal senator," although he said he will vote Democratic in the fall.

"Like so much about Barack Obama's campaign, his campaign manager's words don't match reality," said Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant.

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