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As midterms near, Obama works to re-ignite 2008 enthusiasm in Philadelphia

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 1:14 AM

PHILADELPHIA - President Obama pressed his case Sunday to a crowd that packed into a park here, urging them to defy the conventional wisdom that they will not show up at the polls in November the way they did two years ago.

"I want everybody to understand our victory in that campaign," he said. "That wasn't the end of the road. That was just the beginning of the road. That was just the start of the journey. By itself, it does not deliver the change that we need.

"I'm back here two years later because our job is not yet done, and the success of our mission is at stake right now. On November 2nd, I need you as fired up as you were in 2008, because we've got a lot of work ahead of us."

Philadelphia has been the backdrop for pivotal moments in Obama's political career. It's where he delivered his race speech, where he had one of his toughest debates against Hillary Rodham Clinton, and where he drew one of his biggest crowds in the days before the presidential election.

"We must have seen 80,000 to 100,000 people that day" over multiple stops, Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) said. "It was unbelievable."

That was a lifetime ago in politics. Now Rendell, once very popular and a huge asset in delivering Pennsylvania's 21 delegates to Obama, has approval ratings in the mid-30s, mirroring Obama's ratings in the state.

Overall, however, Obama remains popular with his base, and thousands turned out Sunday.

The hip-hop band the Roots warmed up the crowd before Vice President Biden and Obama took the stage, offering a throwback to the concertlike vibe of rallies past.

Yet whatever enthusiasm and loyalty Obama brings, it has not been evident in statewide races. Democratic candidates in Senate and gubernatorial races have been lagging in polls for weeks.

"I'm not willing to say that the Democrats cannot win the statewide races - I won't go there," said G. Terry Madonna, who heads the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College and has conducted polls on the contests. "Will they win? Probably not."

Obama has tried to close the enthusiasm gap with the GOP over the past few weeks by re-engaging with the young and urban voters who were critical to his winning presidential campaign.

Democrats have been betting that such rallies, ripped from Obama's 2008 playbook, will remind voters of that enthusiasm and prod them to support Democratic candidates at the polls.

The Philadelphia stop was the second of four planned rallies; Obama will head to Ohio on Sunday and to Nevada on Oct. 22. Democrats are locked in tight races in both states.

"Can we match the enthusiasm of the tea party? No. There have been too many disappointments," Rendell said. "But one of the old adages is that a tepid vote counts the same as a wildly enthusiastic one. Our job is to generate enough enthusiasm and interest to get people to the polls."

Asked whether it was problematic that Obama is still working to shore up the base so close to the election, strategist David Plouffe said, "We would've liked to enter Labor Day in a little different place, obviously."

The Senate race in Pennsylvania, which pits Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak against Republican Pat Toomey, is in many ways a stand-in for the national debate. Sestak has linked Toomey to corporate greed and outsourcing. Toomey says Sestak is too close to Obama, linking them to the high unemployment rate.

Obama won Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points in 2008, backed heavily in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and picked up support in some Republican counties. Democrats also gained two House seats, making red congressional districts blue. But this time those House seats, as well as a few others, are in play. Democrats hold 12 seats, with the GOP holding seven.

"If the Democrats lose four seats, I would say no surprise," Madonna said. "If they go deeper than four in our state, the Republicans will take control of the House."

Obama and Biden know how important Pennsylvania is to their 2012 reelection bid. Obama has visited the state nine times as president. Biden has made 15 visits.

At times Sunday, the crowd chanted Obama's campaign slogan, "Yes we can." The president said it was his job to make sure the crowd stayed fired up.

"Of course people are frustrated. Of course people are impatient with the pace of change. And believe me, so am I," he said during his 30-minute speech. "No matter how angry you get, no matter how frustrated you are, the other side has decided to ride that frustration and anger without offering any solutions."

Aiming to capture some of the spirit of his 2008 campaign, Obama said that even though his name isn't on the ballot, and "they're saying the other party's supporters are more enthusiastic, more excited," he urged his supporters to become engaged.

"Well, Philadelphia, I think the pundits are wrong," he said. "I think we're going to win, but you've got to prove them wrong."

Staff writer Philip Rucker in Washington contributed to this report.

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