- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Hours after exercising a cherished presidential right Tuesday — naming a Supreme Court nominee — Barack Obama engaged in one of the office’s grubbier traditions: raising money for an embattled lawmaker.

The president launched a two-day, three-stop Western trip that will devote more time to fundraising than to public policy.

At Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Obama headlined an evening fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat whose home-state popularity has sagged in recent polls.

“Harry is somebody who has consistently fought on those issues that matter not just to Democrats but to middle-class families all across America,” Obama told the crowd at the event, which featured performances by Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow.

Tickets started at $50, but donors giving the $29,600 maximum were able to shake the president’s hand at a more exclusive reception.

On Wednesday, after an 80-minute visit to a photovoltaic facility at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base, Obama plans to host a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. He flies back to Washington early Thursday.

The heavy focus on partisan politics is a departure from Obama’s recent emphasis on the economy and the handling of terrorism suspects.

Unarguably a good campaigner, he sometimes shows ambivalence about the more rawboned aspects of politics. For instance, he did not go to Georgia to stump for the Democrat in a December runoff for a Senate seat, eventually won by the GOP incumbent, Saxby Chambliss. The Democrat, Jim Martin, had invited him, but some party activists questioned whether a visit by Obama would help in a state that he lost to Sen. John McCain in November.

Obama carried Nevada, however, and Reid was eager to have him help draw the kind of crowd that only a president can assemble. “We’re turning people away” from a hall that holds 4,200, Reid told reporters.

He has said he wants to raise $25 million for his re-election contest, which is 17 months away. Polls suggest he is vulnerable, but Republicans have yet to recruit a strong challenger.

Obama urged Nevadans to return Reid for another six-year term, saying his leadership was crucial to passing the $787 billion stimulus package and an expansion of children’s health insurance earlier this year. Reid “knows how to get things done,” Obama told several hundred people who attended the smaller and costlier part of the two-tiered event.

Obama’s clout as a campaigner and fundraiser for Democrats in the 2010 elections will depend largely on whether his popularity remains high and his economic programs succeed. Even if they falter somewhat, Democratic candidates in liberal states are almost certain to welcome his help, at least at fundraisers.

But those in toss-up states might be reluctant to stir up conservative voters with a visit by a president who is dramatically increasing government spending and borrowing.

“In some places he can be polarizing,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington.

A Sacramento, Calif.-based conservative group, Our Country Deserve Better PAC, used the Obama visit to announce the beginning of its “Defeat Harry Reid” campaign. The group said it spent more than $100,000 on television, radio and Internet ads in Nevada this week and was planning a bus tour this summer.

The television ad painted Reid as out of touch with Nevadans, calling the senator a “tax-and-spend liberal” and “emblematic of all that’s wrong in Washington.”

The group also helped organize a rally outside the Reid fundraiser. About 100 protesters chanted “Reject Reid!” to the tourists on the busy Las Vegas Strip corner. Twice as many curious vacationers stopped to linger underneath the Caesars Palace marquee and along the sidewalks, hoping to get a glimpse of the president.

“This just isn’t something you expect to see in Las Vegas,” said Nicole Jones, of Clinton, Ind., as she stopped snapping photos of the neon to get a few shots of the protest.

David DiMartino, a former Democratic Senate aide, said the Las Vegas event makes sense for both Obama and Reid. Obama, he said, wins points with a Senate leader “critical to the success of the president’s agenda. And Sen. Reid gets to appear to his constituents as close to the flame, within the glow of President Obama’s high approval ratings.”

Obama, of course, has plenty of incentives for helping Democratic candidates win elections next year. A 60-person majority in the 100-member Senate would block Republican filibusters of his initiatives if all Democrats toe the party line. Obama also wants to maintain his party’s solid majority in the House, where all 435 seats will be up for grabs next year.

Obama’s Las Vegas visit might enable him to soothe some feelings that he hurt in February. “You can’t get corporate jets,” Obama said then in Indiana, when resentment of corporate executives’ pay packages was running high. “You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas, or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime. There has got to be some accountability and some responsibility.”

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman was among the officials who complained that the president was hurting the city’s crucial tourism business. Goodman, however, joined Reid in greeting Obama on Tuesday when the president descended from Air Force One.

Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, who has called for an apology from Obama, rejected the offer to meet the president at the airport, saying he had hoped for a more formal meeting to discuss the battered tourism industry.

“A handshake and a hello from the president isn’t going to correct this problem,” Gibbons said Tuesday in a phone interview Fox News Channel’s “Your World with Neil Cavuto.”

Obama did not comment on the matter in his public remarks Tuesday.

___

Associated Press writer Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.

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