Obama's calculated visits to battleground turf

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.

"If you keep Connecticut and Delaware, it makes it very hard for the Republicans to get there," one senior administration official said. "It is really an effort to leave no stone unturned."

Although Delaware appears solidly in line for Democratic nominee Chris Coons, he will get a boost Saturday when Obama visits Philadelphia, where media coverage extends to nearby Delaware.

First lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to visit Philadelphia two days later, for an election eve event. And already this week, the president conducted a radio interview with Philadelphia host Michael Smerconish.

The focus on the city reflects the White House view that Philadelphia is a no-brainer: Tucked into the corner of a large swing state with important Senate, gubernatorial and House races, it is a natural base for Obama to speak to the state's electorate, which has 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans.

It doesn't hurt that it is also a critical swing state in the 2012 presidential race, perhaps another reason Obama has made seven trips there since taking office, according to a tally maintained by CBS News chronicler Mark Knoller.

Said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.): "Philly has a multitude of electoral tentacles that suit well the Democratic party's efforts and the outcome of the election. It's really not a surprise."

Another part of the calculation by the White House was recent poll numbers, which showed Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak gaining enough ground on Republican Pat Toomey to make a presidential visit worthwhile.

"I think he can have a significant effect on Democratic turnout, which will affect the outcome," said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), who said he communicated with White House officials about getting Obama to Philadelphia again - although he said his more pressing request was for a visit from the first lady.

"My first choice would be Hillary, but she's not allowed to campaign, of course," Rendell said of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Michelle is enormously popular."

Work in progress

For months, Obama's advisers had sorted through his political travel schedule during the Monday meetings, downstairs near the White House mess. Top advisers swapped ideas from their areas of expertise.

More recently, the group - which includes strategist David Plouffe, pollster Joel Benenson, senior adviser David Axelrod, scheduler Alyssa Mastromonaco, communications director Dan Pfeiffer, political director Patrick Gaspard and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina - has homed in on individual candidate performances, participants said. The potential strength of each state's political networks also was taken into account.

In some cases, the White House had Benenson conduct his own polling to test the president's message and approval in specific environments, including in Florida, Colorado and Pennsylvania. More often, they looked to internal polling by the campaigns and by the Democratic committees,. From there, they would figure out how to match the public mood with the financial ability of the campaigns to foot the expense of bringing in the president.

Heading into the final stretch, the White House was mindful that in earlier off-year campaigns in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia, Obama had been unable to turn Democrats' fortunes with last-minute visits. So it made little sense to book him for lost causes. Instead, they hoped to guarantee victories or tip the scales in close calls.

Wisconsin, for instance, could have been an easy stop, given that it is so close to Chicago. But it was quickly eliminated after the Senate seat began to slip from Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold's grasp, even after a presidential visit to Madison, Wis., last month. Republican Ron Johnson now appears to have a solid lead.

On the other hand, Ohio held obvious appeal. Although the Senate race appears heavily tilted toward Republican Rob Portman over Democrat Lee Fisher, the governor's race is a dead heat. Gov. Ted Strickland (D) is either leading or within striking distance of Republican challenger John Kasich, according to polling within the past month.

When Obama visits Sunday, he will be in the Democratic stronghold of Cleveland, accompanied by Vice President Biden - well within his political comfort zone, but in a difficult swing state at the same time.

Just one stop this weekend, officials said, was bound to be on Obama's calendar: a home-town visit to Chicago, to campaign for the candidate seeking the Senate seat the president once held.

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