- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

When President Obama arrives in Orlando, Fla., on Thursday for a quick one-day visit, two-term Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson won’t be among those there to greet him.

As Democrats in tough races in other swing states have done in recent months, Mr. Nelson — facing a tough re-election battle this year — has found a reason to be elsewhere when Mr. Obama comes to town. His office is telling reporters that a previous engagement two hours away in Sarasota will prevent the senator from appearing with the president at Disney World to announce a new plan to boost U.S. travel and tourism.

The White House on Wednesday tried to shrug off Republican jeers that the president’s fellow Democrats were trying to distance themselves — figuratively and literally — from Mr. Obama for fear of what it might mean for them at the ballot box in November.

Asked during the daily White House briefing whether the president was disappointed that Mr. Nelson will not appear with him Thursday, Mr. Carney tersely replied, “I’m not aware of any opinion he’s expressed on that.”

Mr. Carney also denied any political motive behind the president’s trip to the critical re-election battleground state just days before Republicans presidential candidates turn their attention to the state after South Carolina’s primary on Saturday.

“You know, this is obvious, it’s obvious when you’re making a tourism and travel announcement that one of the premier sites of the U.S. tourism industry is Orlando. So, that seems pretty self-evident that you would do that,” he said.

But Republicans said the White House’s nonchalance and Mr. Nelson’s explanation don’t pass the straight-face test.

A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee contended that Mr. Nelson has been trying to run away from the president rhetorically for months, despite his voting record strongly in favor of Mr. Obama’s agenda.

“In Washington, Sen. Bill Nelson has voted with President Barack Obama over 97 percent of the time, and his absence will not hide the fact that he voted for Obama’s $2.5 trillion health care bill,” said NRSC spokesman Jahan Wilcox.

Adam Hasner, the former majority leader of the Florida House of Representatives, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate, mocked Mr. Nelson.

“Now that we are in an election year, Bill Nelson is running from his support of the stimulus, Obamacare and cap-and-trade, and running from President Obama himself,” Mr. Hasner told sunshinestatenews.com.

“As a lifetime member of the hospitality industry and past tourism commissioner, maybe I can help him understand why our nation’s bureaucracy and overbearing regulations kill incentives for job creation,” added businessman Craig Miller, who is running against Mr. Hasner for the chance to challenge Mr. Nelson.

In bailing on Mr. Obama, Mr. Nelson is following a time-honored tradition of candidates in tough fights doing their best to avoid sharing the stage with a politically unpopular or divisive president of their own party when he comes to town.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, notably didn’t appear with Mr. Obama earlier this month when the president traveled to Cleveland, and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, was nowhere to be seen during a presidential visit to the state in November.

Over the years, some candidates have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep presidents at a distance — at least in public. When then-Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican, was struggling to regain his footing in a 2006 midterm race, he avoided appearing in public with President George W. Bush, even though Mr. Bush quietly appeared at closed-door fundraisers for Mr. DeWine.

During his ill-fated run for president in 2000, even Vice President Al Gore was accused of avoiding appearances with President Clinton, with his boss’s messy impeachment battle and affair with Monica Lewinsky still fresh in the public’s mind.

But in Florida, it will be increasingly difficult for Mr. Nelson to avoid Mr. Obama or at least his image in the weeks and months ahead. With the Republican Party holding its convention in Tampa, Fla., in late August, the Obama campaign is planning a massive ad buy in this large swing state that the president won by just 2.5 percentage points in 2008.

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