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Primary elections help define President Obama's role in midterm elections

By Karen Tumulty and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; A01

The biggest primary day this year brought some resolution to one of the trickiest questions confronting Democrats as they march toward the fall elections: What role will President Obama play?

Strategists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue say it is now clear that, although Obama's name will not be on the ballot, it will fall to him to build the case for the activist approach that he has pressed his party to take over the past 16 months. And just as important, they say, he must take the lead in making the argument against the Republicans.

His ambitious agenda is "why the president was elected," said David Axelrod, Obama's top political strategist. "We need to make the case as to what we are doing, and why that's consistent, and why we don't want to go backward."

Bolstering Democratic hopes that this message can resonate -- even in the current anti-establishment political environment -- was an unexpectedly large victory Tuesday night in a House race that both parties had seen as a test of their strategies for the fall.

While Obama did not campaign in the special election to replace the late congressman John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), he did play a major role -- as the Republicans' favorite foil in a conservative Pennsylvania district where he is deeply unpopular. But by tailoring his message to local concerns, Democrat Mark Critz won handily against a GOP candidate who framed the vote as an opportunity to register a protest against Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Having fallen short, Republicans were tempering their heady predictions of taking back the House this fall. "Last night is evidence of the fact that we have a lot of work to do and we can't get ahead of ourselves," said House GOP Whip Eric Cantor (Va.).

How, when and where to deploy a president is always a sensitive call in a midterm election. Typically, non-presidential-year elections are the sum of hundreds of highly individualized races. If they are run on national themes, and as a referendum on the chief executive -- as in the 1994 campaign that elevated Newt Gingrich to House speaker -- that is generally not a good thing for the party in control.

But no one else has the president's power to make the case for his party's agenda and, conversely, against the opposition. Democrats on Capitol Hill have made no secret of their desire to see Obama get more seriously into the fray. While it's an easy applause line to decry that Washington is broken, they complain that the president has not been forceful enough in laying the blame on the Republicans. In part, they suggest, that is because Obama and his advisers are too protective of the post-partisan brand of politics that got him elected -- but that has lost some of its sheen as his major initiatives have passed on largely party-line votes.

"I'm all for drawing contrasts," said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, using a phrase that politicians often employ as a euphemism for going negative. The president's challenge, he said, is the same as that faced by Democrats who are on the ballot this year: "You must define yourself, you must define your opponent before they do, and you must frame the choice."

Congressional Democrats have been heartened by what they see as a sharper tone in some of Obama's recent speeches.

At a May 13 fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in New York, the president said of the Republicans' approach to fixing the economy: "They've done their best to gum up the works; to make things look broken; to say no to every single thing. . . . So after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back."

Similarly, when Obama visited a factory Tuesday in Youngstown, Ohio, that had received money from the stimulus package -- which Congress approved with no GOP votes last year -- he warned: "If the 'just say no' crowd had won out, if we had done things the way they wanted to go, we'd be in a deeper world of hurt."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who heads the DCCC, said speeches such as these represent "exactly the message that we hope and understand he will be carrying into this election."

Republicans said they, too, have taken notice of Obama's tougher language, and they warn of potential long-term consequences. "I think at some point he risks undermining his own credibility," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "People expect the president of the United States to rise above the back-and-forth of election-year politics, but I guess that's the risk he's taking."

Beyond Obama's ability to frame a national message, no one in the party can raise more money for candidates. And White House officials say that as the fall elections near, the president will step up his appearances in the districts where he is popular.

That kind of promise is particularly important to endangered lawmakers such as Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who said he was dismayed in the final days before Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary to see that the White House was unwilling to pull out the stops for the candidate it endorsed, Sen. Arlen Specter.

"Let me get this straight: If you think I can't win, you're not going to spend political capital on me, even though I spill buckets of blood for you?" Connolly said. "The White House can't be [keeping] distance from people who have walked the plank for them, even when they might lose. Loyalty matters in this business."

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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