Since kicking off his re-election campaign last weekend, President Obama has endured a rapid series of stumbles, including a debate on gay marriage initiated by his vice president and an embarrassingly close primary victory over a prison inmate.
"You always hope for the best, but that's what happens in this 24/7 news cycle that we live in," said Democratic strategist Jim Manley. "Issues come up, and issues go away."
First, there was the much-publicized difference of opinion with Mr. Obama's right-hand man, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, on gay marriage. A day after the president's festive inaugural campaign rallies in Ohio and Virginia, the loquacious Mr. Biden declared his support for gay marriage on a Sunday talk show, even though the president was on record opposing it.
The split put the Obama campaign off message for four days running, as reporters and the gay community sought clarification on the president's position. It culminated in Mr. Obama's hastily arranged interview Wednesday with ABC News on the subject at the White House, in which he essentially was prodded by those around him to declare his support for gay marriage, a position he had been trying to avoid.
"I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," Mr. Obama said.
As progressives clamored for Mr. Obama to take a stand in favor of gay marriage, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Edward G. Rendell even urged the president publicly to "man up" — advice never welcomed by a president running for re-election.
Then voters in North Carolina, home to Mr. Obama's renominating convention in September, approved by a wide margin a constitutional amendment Tuesday defining legal marriage as only between a man and a woman. The White House announced that Mr. Obama was "disappointed" by the vote.
But some progressive and gay advocacy groups want to go further. At the website Change.org, a petition to retaliate against North Carolina by moving the Democratic convention out of Charlotte had almost 23,000 signatures after 4 p.m. Wednesday. The Daily Beast reported that a platform battle to explicitly affirm gay marriage was becoming increasingly likely.
Things had been going poorly for the Obama campaign since its official kickoff over the weekend and its unveiling of a new slogan ("Forward") to replace "Hope and Change" from 2008. But the rally at Ohio State University in Columbus had more than 4,000 empty seats, a stark contrast to the overflow crowds Mr. Obama frequently drew four years ago.
His standing in the polls also has been slipping in the past week, with Republican Mitt Romney grabbing a 5-percentage-point lead (49 percent to 44 percent) in the Rasmussen Reports daily tracking poll Wednesday, an 8-point swing over the past week.
The Real Clear Politics average of polls Wednesday showed Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney in a statistical tie (46.2 percent to 46 percent) for the first time since last fall, when that matchup was hypothetical, and a 4-point drop from Mr. Obama's average lead over Mr. Romney on April 27.
To cap off the inglorious streak, Mr. Obama found himself in a competitive Democratic primary Tuesday in West Virginia — with a man behind bars serving a sentence for extortion. Keith R. Judd, 53, an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution at Texarkana, Texas, took 41 percent of the presidential primary vote and defeated Mr. Obama in nine of the state's 55 counties.
Judd paid the $2,500 filing fee and submitted a notarized "certificate of announcement" to appear on the ballot. In coal-mining Mingo County, the inmate beat Mr. Obama 60 percent to 40 percent.
"We knew President Obama was unpopular in West Virginia, but ... this?" West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval said on his blog. "I suspect the vast majority of those who voted for Keith Judd did not know he's a jailbird, but rather they simply cast a protest vote against the president."
Judd won about 72,000 votes to Mr. Obama's 106,000. His performance qualifies him to be awarded at least one delegate to the Democratic National Convention, although apparently nobody signed up to be a Judd delegate.
Democrats pointed out that Mr. Obama always has been somewhat unpopular in West Virginia, losing the 2008 primary there handily to then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But Republican National Committee research director Joe Pounder was only too happy to ask, "Just how unpopular does someone have to be for this to happen?"
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Sen. Joe Manchin III, both Democrats, have not revealed whether they will support the president's re-election bid. In the coal-rich state, the Environmental Protection Agency has antagonized the industry and its supporters, many of whom perceive the administration's policies as anti-coal.
North Carolina's Democratic presidential primary handed Mr. Obama another rebuke. Even though the president faced no opposition and had narrowly carried the state in the 2008 general election, 20.8 percent of the state's Democratic voters cast ballots for the "no preference" entry.
The Obama campaign hopes to regain its message-control footing Thursday when Mr. Obama leaves Washington for a two-day campaign swing to Seattle, Los Angeles and Reno, Nev.
Mr. Manley, of Quinn Gillespie Associates, said none of the events of the past few days "fazes" him.
"The corollary is that you had Mitt Romney out there claiming credit for saving the auto industry, which a lot of folks seized on as another instance of him trying to have it both ways," Mr. Manley said. "The fact is, you've got to beat somebody with someone, and the Republicans don't have anyone. If you look at the individual battleground states, not only is the economy doing better in many of them, but the president's poll numbers are improving in them."
Democratic strategist Karl Frisch said the news in recent days won't hurt Mr. Obama's re-election effort.
"I think there's a healthy portion of the country that would like to see him finish evolving on marriage equality," Mr. Frisch said. "At the end of the day, I don't think they were necessarily off message."
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