- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It was yet another recent health care event at the White House Rose Garden, and there, standing next to President Obama — so close to the lectern that it almost seemed he was on top of the presidential seal — was Sen. Christopher J. Dodd.

Given his precarious political situation, it wasn’t a bad place for the five-term senator to be.

The Connecticut Senate race is shaping up as a key test of whether presidential attention can carry Democrats to the election finish line, as the embattled Mr. Dodd has taken every opportunity to grasp Mr. Obama’s coattails. He’s setting records for White House appearances and is receiving heaps of praise from Mr. Obama, his former Senate colleague.

“It’s a very good strategy here in the state. Every congressional district is now voting Democrat, and Obama is popular in the state. The state definitely would be impressed with it,” said Gary L. Rose, a professor of politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., who said Mr. Dodd’s “grand strategy” is to tie his own legislative work with Mr. Obama’s agenda.

“It seems to be working, quite frankly. His poll numbers are coming up,” Mr. Rose said.

Mr. Dodd has scored 11 mentions by Mr. Obama in public speeches and remarks so far this year, including praise for his “bold leadership” in that July 15 health care event in the Rose Garden. Mr. Obama called him a “good friend” at a May 20 bill signing and two days later gave “a special shout-out” to Mr. Dodd, calling him “a relentless fighter” as Mr. Obama signed the credit card bill Mr. Dodd had sponsored.

On June 22, Mr. Dodd got a two-fer. In the morning, he appeared with Mr. Obama at a Medicare announcement where Mr. Obama called him “an outstanding leader.” By the afternoon, however, as Mr. Obama signed a bill cracking down on tobacco companies, the president must have been suffering from Dodd fatigue, because he introduced the senator as “Representative Dodd.”

“Things are tough enough,” Mr. Dodd quipped as Mr. Obama corrected himself.

Mr. Dodd knows the value of tying himself to Mr. Obama in a state the president won with 60.6 percent of the vote last year.

The first ad Mr. Dodd began running — a shocking 17 months before the election — begins and ends with images of Mr. Obama giving that shout-out to Mr. Dodd in the Rose Garden.

By contrast, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who is also up for re-election next year, has not scored a single public acknowledgement from the president’s lips this year. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the former Republican and now Democrat up for re-election, has earned mentions in three sets of remarks and one press conference — mostly because of his party switch.

Jay Howser, Mr. Dodd’s campaign manager, says they aren’t counting the appearances and said the senator’s frequent presence at the White House has “nothing to do with politics and everything to do with public policy.”

Mr. Dodd was chief sponsor of a bill to change credit card laws. Also, in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s absence because of illness, Mr. Dodd, the No. 2 Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, shepherded through Mr. Kennedy’s crackdown on tobacco companies and has taken a lead role in the health care debate.

“He is one of the leading senators leading the fight for the Obama agenda,” Mr. Howser said. “I think it has a lot less to do with coattails and a lot more to do with public policy, a lot more to do with the senator doing his job.”

That Mr. Dodd is in trouble is surprising. Since earning 56 percent of the vote in his first Senate bid in 1980, Mr. Dodd has won re-election with 65 percent, 59 percent, 65 percent and, in 2004, 66 percent support.

However, he has tumbled since his failed presidential campaign, facing criticism for receiving a sweetheart deal on his mortgage from Countrywide Financial Corp. and for inserting a provision into a bill that allowed millions of dollars in bonuses to be paid to executives from American International Group.

“Dodd’s problem in Connecticut is that nobody trusts him, and it’s pretty evident that he’s hoping their confidence in President Obama will rub off on him, but people are not so easily fooled,” said Jim Barnett, a spokesman for former Rep. Rob Simmons, one of several Connecticut Republicans seeking to challenge Mr. Dodd.

Mr. Barnett said that given some of the things that have tarnished Mr. Dodd’s standing, there’s a disconnect between the senator’s actions and the president’s words.

“It must always be uncomfortable when Chris Dodd comes around the White House since he’s the poster child for the sort of behavior President Obama ran against,” he said.

A Quinnipiac University Poll released last week found Mr. Dodd’s job approval rating has inched up steadily to 42 percent. It had dipped to 33 percent in April and was at 38 percent in May.

Yet Mr. Dodd still trails Mr. Simmons in a head-to-head matchup, 48 percent to 39 percent.

“Dodd’s most glaring weakness continues to be that a majority of voters say he is not honest and trustworthy. This is not something that will be easy for Dodd to reverse,” said Quinnipiac University Poll Director Douglas Schwartz.

Mr. Obama already has proved to be successful in carrying Democrats to victory in Connecticut. Mr. Rose said the president’s performance in 2008 boosted Democrats statewide and was directly responsible for helping Rep. Jim Himes defeat Rep. Christopher Shays.

Mr. Obama’s 60.6 percent of the vote in Connecticut was about the same showing as in major liberal strongholds such as Massachusetts and Maryland and even comparable to the 62 percent Mr. Obama won in his home state of Illinois.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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