Democrats map out midterm campaign strategy for Obama

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; A01

Facing a tough midterm election in which they could potentially lose their majorities in Congress, Democrats are privately debating where and how President Obama can help -- or hurt.

The president is unlikely to campaign in Arkansas and hasn't been to Illinois since last summer, even though both states have important Senate races.

Although many states won't hold primaries until next month, Obama has appeared at only one campaign rally this year -- for Martha Coakley, who lost a special Senate election in Massachusetts. He has held no big events in any number of states -- including Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Ohio -- with competitive races.

The political calculations are driven in part by Obama's overall approval rating, which has stayed at 53 percent in Washington Post-ABC News polls for several months. And the nation remains divided over his signature domestic accomplishment, the new health-care law.

Obama made a campaign-style swing to Maine on Thursday to talk about health care and raised money for the Democratic National Committee in Boston on his way home. But he did not use the trip to campaign for any of the dozens of Democrats nationwide who are in trouble because of their health-care votes. White House officials scoffed at the notion that the president should actively campaign with midterms seven months away, saying that they are mapping out his campaign schedule over the next few weeks.

In the anti-establishment climate, some Democrats are saying that it's smart for Obama to keep his distance from candidates in difficult races, allowing them to run against Washington and avoid the downward pull of his approval ratings. Others say he should heed the lessons of last year's Democratic losses and begin campaigning early enough to make a difference with the Democratic base.

Even while that debate begins, there is a clear no-fly zone for Obama, said senior administration officials, who discussed internal White House strategy on the condition of anonymity. "There are some cases, like Blanche Lincoln, where it's not helpful" for the president to travel, one senior administration official said, referring to the two-term senator from Arkansas who is facing challenges in the primary.

Also on the list are states in which candidates would welcome Obama's help but have not gotten it. Despite promising to return to Chicago every six to eight weeks after he was inaugurated, Obama has not been to Illinois in months, although a contentious race for his former Senate seat is underway. The Democratic candidate, Alexi Giannoulias, has received verbal support from the White House, especially from senior adviser David Axelrod, who publicly criticized his opponent, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill). But although Kirk has had visits from Republican figures such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Giannoulias has not seen Obama himself.

"He hasn't campaigned for anyone," a senior administration official said. The plan, the official said, is to accelerate Obama's fundraising over the summer and send him to campaign events after Labor Day.

Obama has appeared at eight fundraisers this year, half of them for Democratic candidates: two for Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), who is not up for reelection until 2012, and two for Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), who was appointed to his seat last year and is running for a full term. The other four were for the Democratic Party, according to the tally kept by CBS News presidential chronicler Mark Knoller.

The only officially announced campaign event on Obama's schedule is in California, where he will attend a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer this month. He also plans to raise money for the DNC this month. Advisers said they expect him to return to Colorado and perhaps Missouri.

But when Obama was recently in Missouri for McCaskill, Robin Carnahan, the Democratic Senate candidate who has a race this year, left the state. Officials said it was because of previously arranged business but privately said that there will be Democratic candidates who do not want their photograph taken with the president.

Still, one senior administration official said: "This is not Bush in 2006 or Clinton in '94, when the party tried to run away from incumbents. That's how you get beat. We don't see people running away from him."

Arkansas is the most obvious place for Obama to avoid, several Democrats said. He has endorsed Lincoln but has no plans to help her on the ground there. Asked whether Lincoln would like a presidential visit, Katie Laning Niebaum, a campaign spokeswoman, said: "President Obama hasn't appeared in Arkansas since 2006, but Senator Lincoln has let him know that he is always welcome."

"It is much more important for him to talk about his economic policies and what he's trying to get accomplished -- and to solicit support from the electorate nationwide-- than it is for him to campaign for congressional and senatorial candidates at this point," said Democratic consultant Steve Murphy, who is working on several races, including Lincoln's. "Of course, we wouldn't mind him showing up at a fundraiser now and then."

Other Democratic consultants working on races in swing states lauded the White House for using Obama judiciously, saying that they would prefer for him to achieve solid results than tour the nation on a permanent campaign.

But several strategists, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be critical of a White House whose help they need, said they wished Obama would take a stronger role in defining the advantages of the new health-care law and bringing that message to toss-up states and districts.

In Florida, Democratic candidates could use White House help in selling the health-care program to senior citizens, who are wary of purported Medicare cuts and are also the most important voting bloc, one consultant said.

Asked why the president chose to head to Maine -- a state with two Republican senators, neither of whom has an election on the horizon -- senior administration officials said it was in part because Obama had not been to the swing state as president.

And, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "because the elections aren't in March or April."

"There's a thousand years before the next elections. You guys will have plenty of time to go cover them," Gibbs told a reporter. "The president is not focused on what happens the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. We're focused on this Monday and this Tuesday."

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