Obama's calculated visits to battleground turf

President Barack Obama barely cracked any jokes during an appearance Wednesday on "The Daily Show" despite host Jon Stewart's attempts to draw out the president's humorous side.
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 8:45 PM

With the midterm campaigns drawing to a close, senior White House officials gathered Monday night for their regular political meeting to answer a pressing question: Where should they send President Obama, their most precious commodity, in the final 72 hours?

His schedule could not be a campaign swing designed to rescue loyal friends in peril, or to create a story line about his expanding political field. It involved a more subtle calculation of polling data, timing and logistics, senior administration officials said.

The president also had to avoid the pitfalls of perception: It could be harmful to send him to too many safely Democratic states in a row or to too many places where the party's nominee appeared destined to lose.

In the lower-level Ward Room in the West Wing of the White House, top Obama political strategists sifted through a complex web of considerations.

They could send him to Wisconsin, but the Senate seat appeared to be slipping away despite a recent presidential visit. Maybe Colorado? The Senate contest there was much closer, but it wasn't clear - given the state's changing political sentiments - whether a visit by Obama would help. Washington, California and Nevada were out, given that he had just campaigned out West. The advisers easily eliminated West Virginia and Kentucky, two states that were hostile to Obama in the presidential race and have grown even more so.

What emerged from the meeting, and others on the same subject, was a final presidential swing that is noteworthy for its limitations and cautiousness. It includes a familiar loop of cities with robust Democratic organizations - Philadelphia; Bridgeport, Conn.; Chicago; and Cleveland - nestled in the corner of larger swing states, putting Obama in just two time zones and getting him home on Sunday in time to take his daughters trick-or-treating for Halloween, a factor his schedulers took into account.

Beyond logistical simplicity - no small factor - the trip the White House devised allows Obama to play to his strengths while minimizing his exposure if the worst should happen during Tuesday's elections.

Closing 'enthusiasm gap'

What will unfold over the next three days reflects a pragmatic assessment of what the president can achieve in the final stretch, with a few specific aims, according to people involved in the planning and others familiar with it. (One important exception: Obama will travel to Charlottesville on Friday on behalf of Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello, who is in an uphill fight but, as a darling of the White House located in an easily accessible district, was deemed worthy of a trip.)

"We picked places where the path to victory depends largely on closing the enthusiasm gap," one senior administration official said. Another said more bluntly: "We looked at the tracking polls and matched it with our ability to move the needle."

The most curious stop is Connecticut, where Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic Senate candidate, appears to have a comfortable lead over Republican Linda McMahon. Rep. Jim Himes, a freshman Democrat who represents Bridgeport, also seems to be in decent shape.

But White House officials, stung by Republican Scott Brown's surprising Senate victory in a special election in Massachusetts in January, do not want to see the year end in a similar manner in another traditionally Democratic New England state.

Even though the seat appears to be in hand, White House officials consider holding onto Connecticut critical to maintaining Senate control.

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