Obama as campaigner in chief: Will his record improve?

On the road in Colorado and Nevada, Obama looks to boost embattled Democrats after similar bids failed in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts.

Isaac Brekken/AP
President Obama (r.) greets Sen. Harry Reid Friday in Las Vegas, Nev., before a speech to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

So far, President Obama doesn’t have the best track record in helping fellow Democrats get elected. Just ask former Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey or never-Gov. Creigh Deeds of Virginia, both of whom had Mr. Obama come visit for some last-ditch campaign support in November, and came up short.

Then there’s Martha Coakley, whose dreadful Massachusetts Senate campaign was likely beyond repair by the time Obama swooped in on the eve of the January special election. But he showed up anyway. Maybe he helped; she did, after all, lose by only 5 points. But a loss is a loss, and it reinforced Obama’s growing image as an ineffective surrogate.

Now, the real show begins. Campaign 2010 has begun in earnest, and Obama is on his inaugural voyage as campaigner in chief this week, first traveling to Colorado to help out endangered Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and then to Nevada for the embattled Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate Democrats.

Though Obama maintains roughly 50 percent job approval nationwide, his numbers vary widely state to state. In California, he’s at 59 percent, while in Kansas, only 35 percent, according to the latest SurveyUSA automated polling. In both Colorado and Nevada, averages of major polls show Obama in the mid-40s – not great, not terrible.

“He has to pick his spots,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “He can’t afford that many campaigns where he’s not seen as having clout, because that just resonates toward the Republicans.”

In both Colorado and Nevada, Obama has aimed his messages both toward his Democratic base and toward formerly Democratic-voting independents he’s trying to win back. His messages on pressing forward with healthcare reform, for example, are just what his base wants to hear. Talk of deficit reduction is aimed more at the center.

In Colorado, Obama is throwing his weight behind a struggling Senator Bennet, who was appointed to his seat after the president made Sen. Ken Salazar secretary of the Interior. Bennet, former superintendent of Denver public schools, has never run for office in his own right, and faces a more seasoned politician, former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff, in the Democratic primary.

The Obama White House has made the unusual assertion that it is backing all Democratic incumbents facing primaries. Usually, White Houses steer clear of primary battles. But in this case, the move is likely aimed at winning loyalty in a Senate that has seemed increasingly shaky about the administration’s agenda.

Being there for Senator Reid is even more about helping an important incumbent – the top Senate Democrat – stave off a humiliating electoral defeat. For now, Reid appears to be in serious trouble, facing low job approvals in his home state. Reid has had mixed success in pushing forward Obama’s agenda in the Senate, though he did win passage of comprehensive healthcare reform on Christmas Eve.

At the very least, presidential travel can bring in the big bucks. In Colorado, Obama was expected to raise as much as $700,000 for Bennet. In Las Vegas, Obama headlined a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee on Thursday night, then on Friday appeared at a town-hall meeting that had more the feel of a campaign rally for Reid. At the event, he announced $1.5 billion in aid to struggling homeowners.


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