By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 3:11 PM
Last week, President Obama did the informal backyard thing. This week, he's bringing it indoors - including a $1 million fundraising dinner in suburban New Jersey on Wednesday night - as part of a political push that is starting to reveal his strengths and weaknesses as a force to aid Democratic candidates.
First, his strengths. Obama can raise money for Democrats. The New Jersey event - at the $2 million home of Michael and Jackie Kempner, big fundraisers who were also on the guest list for the last state dinner at the White House - will cost participants $30,400 per couple. The 50-seat event sold out quickly, officials involved with its planning said.
Similarly, Obama is going to Illinois on Thursday to raise money for Alexi Giannoulias, the Democrat running to fill the president's former Senate seat. Next Monday night, Obama heads to Coral Gables, Fla., for a fundraiser with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to benefit House candidates. The following Saturday, he heads to Boston for a fundraiser for Senate candidates. Democratic officials said Obama is proving every bit as powerful a fundraiser as they had expected, helping offset some fundraising by outside groups on the Republican side.
But he has weaknesses, too. Even when Obama is in his home state, he is not going to do any big public appearances for Giannoulias - although Illinois is a place where Obama is popular enough to help the Democratic candidate. (In fact, since Giannoulias started running ads featuring Obama around Labor Day - along with negative ones about his rival, Rep. Mark Kirk - his popularity has inched upward.) Nonetheless, Obama is only doing money on this trip. "Kirk has raised a ton of money and now has outside help," a White House official said. "Money is most helpful."
(A side note: Obama is not scheduled to do any events with former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel while he is in Chicago on Thursday. "It's a quick in-and-out," an administration official said. Still, Democratic officials wonder whether simply having Obama and Emanuel back in the same city will dominate the news coverage and drown out some of the attention intended for Giannoulias.)
That is not to say Obama can't - or won't - do public political events. He has a rally in Bowie on Thursday for Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a large campus event in Philadelphia on Sunday and two town hall-style events next week, on Tuesday and Thursday. He has a major campaign swing planned for the end of October, when he'll appear in Las Vegas for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and he'll probably make stops for Sens. Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray as well, Democratic officials said. And there are two additional campus rallies on the books.
Yet Obama is showing up in only the occasional Democratic television ad, most notably one that began airing this week in Louisiana's 2nd District on behalf of Democratic candidate Cedric Richmond. The district is one of the few in the country that is both held by a Republican and has a sizable percentage of African American voters - the perfect mix for Obama in the current climate.
White House officials argue that Obama is neither a liability nor an asset in most races nationwide, claiming that almost all are turning increasingly local. And they note that, if anything, Obama is starting to look better than he has for weeks: The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows his approval rating has rebounded to where it was in mid-summer, after dropping to an all-time low in early September.