- Associated Press - Thursday, August 5, 2010

CHICAGO | Risking personal prestige and political capital, President Obama took a high-profile plunge Thursday into the race for his former Senate seat, on behalf of a candidate who could embarrass Democrats - and the president himself - if he loses.

Illinois state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias trails Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk in the race for campaign cash. He’s also found himself embroiled in a controversy surrounding the failure of his family’s Chicago bank.

With a thin grip on the Senate, Democrats can’t afford to lose the seat. Neither can Mr. Obama afford the blow of seeing the seat from which he catapulted to the White House turn to Republican hands on his watch as effective chief of the Democratic Party.

Knowing he will own the outcome whether he engages directly or not, Mr. Obama waded in fully on Thursday, seeking to boost Mr. Giannoulias’ fortunes by helping him rake in $1 million at a fundraiser and speaking warmly of his sterling values and trustworthiness.

“Alexi is my friend. I know his character. I know how much he loves this country. I know how committed he is to public service for all the right reasons,” Mr. Obama said, after Mr. Giannoulias introduced him and the two posed for pictures, arm in arm. Mr. Giannoulias remained seated on stage as Mr. Obama spoke.

Campaigning for a single candidate isn’t something Mr. Obama has done often in this election season.

He’s only done so where the result could be pivotal to Democratic control of the Senate - and where an appearance by the president whose popularity has declined wouldn’t do more harm than good.

That set includes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and California Sen. Barbara Boxer, both targeted for defeat by the GOP. Mr. Obama also campaigned last month for Missouri Senate candidate Robin Carnahan.

The fact that Mr. Obama came home to Chicago to stump for Mr. Giannoulias - the only candidate he’ll campaign for during a two-week burst of especially intense nationwide fundraising - underscored the high stakes involved.

Democrats effectively hold a 59-41 advantage in the Senate, one vote shy of the 60 needed to overcome GOP stall tactics on legislation. Any erosion of the Democrats’ majority or even worse for Obama’s party, a loss of control of the chamber could severely weaken his agenda.

Mr. Obama told the lunchtime crowd of a few hundred a story about how Mr. Giannoulias had stopped a bank from pulling a clothing company’s credit and threatening hundreds of jobs after the business fell on hard times. Mr. Giannoulias told the bank it stood to lose state business if it moved ahead with the plan.

“Because of what he did, Alexi helped save that company and save those jobs,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s the kind of person you want in the United States Senate.”

Mr. Giannoulias may welcome the in-person support from the nation’s top Democrat, but it could come with a price: Mr. Obama has a losing track record when it comes to candidates he has personally campaigned for.

Democrats lost governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey last year, and the party suffered a stunning defeat this year when Republicans flipped a Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts long held by Edward M. Kennedy.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled that he is campaigning here. Every time he comes out, his candidate loses. So keep it coming,” Catherina Wojtowicz, organizer of a “tea party” group in Chicago, said while standing outside the downtime hotel where Mr. Obama stumped for Mr. Giannoulias.

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