Obama travels to Illinois to help Alexi Giannoulias in Senate race

After presenting the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal at a White House ceremony, the crowd sang Happy Birthday to President Barack Obama. And with his wife and daughters out of town, Obama will celebrate his 49th birthday solo in Chicago.
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010

CHICAGO -- One evening last week, presidential adviser David Axelrod spoke at a small fundraiser for 34-year-old Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a basketball buddy of Barack Obama's and the Democratic candidate for the president's old Senate seat.

Axelrod told the story of a long-ago phone call from the evening's hostess, Democratic donor Bettylu Saltzman, who said she'd just met young Obama and thought that he could be president someday. Axelrod turned and smiled at Giannoulias. Her blessing, the adviser said, was a "good omen."

Giannoulias will take any good omens he can get. He is an amiable but not quite formidable candidate who has struggled to inspire even some loyal Democrats. His principal professional experience before winning election as treasurer in 2006 with Obama's support was four years as a senior loan officer at his family's Broadway Bank -- seized in April by federal regulators when piles of loans went bad.

His Republican opponent is more experienced and better funded, but error-prone. Rep. Mark Kirk, 50, who assails Giannoulias daily on Chicago's airwaves, got into trouble recently for embellishing his military service and teaching experience. His troubles helped erase Kirk's early lead in the polls and the two are now running even.

(Discrepancies put GOP's Kirk on the defensive)

The White House, anxious about the possibility of losing a Democratic seat, especially in the president's home state, is taking a special interest in the race. This is the seat that ousted governor Rod Blagojevich (D) allegedly tried to sell to the highest bidder after Obama left the Senate to become president. He later appointed a semi-retired politician, Roland Burris, who made little mark and did not seek election.

In recent weeks, the president and other senior administration officials have emerged as some of Giannoulias's most visible supporters. Axelrod, Vice President Biden and strategist David Plouffe have raised money and offered advice. Obama himself will hold a fundraiser for Giannoulias on Thursday in Chicago.

"This is an urgent matter for us," Axelrod told the three dozen guests clustered on Saltzman's broad terrace.

'Eminently winnable'

Although Giannoulias, who met Obama on a Chicago basketball court, describes the president as his political inspiration, he was not Obama's first choice for the seat. Obama tried to get Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is more experienced and better funded, to run but she declined.

On a conference call for the candidate last week, Plouffe called the Senate race "eminently winnable," a sober if hardly enthusiastic assessment in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans and hold every statewide office -- and where Obama's popularity remains above 50 percent.

One Democratic contributor backing Giannoulias termed the current mood a "malaise," particularly in contrast to the enthusiasm for Obama in 2008.

"Nobody's really enthusiastic," said the contributor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk plainly. "Even those who say, 'Alexi's not a bad guy, he didn't do too bad as treasurer, he says the right things.' "

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