Tuesday, February 16, 2010

President Obama kicks off what might be called his “Save the Senate” tour this week, heading west to campaign for two embattled Democrats trailing badly against Republican challengers - including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

With high-profile Democrats already bailing out of re-election campaigns - Sen. Evan Bayh’s decision on Monday to drop out of the race in Indiana brings the number of retirees to five - Mr. Obama is putting his popularity and fundraising prowess on the line as he tries to help his party hold the majority in the Senate.

Local Republicans are salivating at the prospect of Mr. Obama dropping into town to campaign for their opponents.

“The hardworking families in Nevada see right through any type of political dog-and-pony shows taking place this week in Las Vegas,” said former state Sen. Sue Lowden, a Republican running for Mr. Reid’s seat. “No amount of campaign cash will buy back the trust of voters and convince them that he deserves another six years.”

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Even Democratic strategists say a visit by the president - whose poll numbers have plummeted since taking office - carries risks for his fellow Democrats.

“It’s definitely a gamble,” said Democratic strategist Liz Chadderdon. “A handshake that raises $1 million now could cost them the election later.”

Mr. Obama on Thursday will head to Colorado to deliver remarks at an event for Sen. Michael Bennet, who is trailing both Republicans vying for their party’s nomination. Mr. Bennet, 45, took office in January 2009 when Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. appointed him to fill the seat of Ken Salazar, whom Mr. Obama appointed to his Cabinet as secretary of the interior.

Mr. Bennet trails Jane Norton, a former lieutenant governor and state representative, by 14 percentage points, and Ken Buck, a district attorney and former congressional aide, by four percentage points, according to the most recent Rasmussen Reports survey.

The president’s appearance likely will help Mr. Bennet survive the Democratic primary because he “is still very popular with base voters,” said Ms. Chadderdon. “But will Obama’s numbers have rebounded enough in the general [election] not to be an albatross?”

On Thursday night, Mr. Obama will headline a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Las Vegas. The next day, he will hold events in the city with Mr. Reid, whose popularity in Nevada has fallen to record lows. Polls show a slew of Republican challengers - among them Mrs. Lowden and Las Vegas real estate developer Danny Tarkanian - ahead of Mr. Reid in potential November matchups.

Still, Democratic strategist Bud Jackson said calling in the president - even if his poll numbers are falling - still can be fruitful.

“Obama won’t be able to save senators by visiting their states, but he can help them with fundraising, rallying the base and putting Democrats on the same stage as the president of the United States, which lends credibility,” Mr. Jackson said.

But just a year after Mr. Obama swept into office and Democrats picked up eight seats to secure a filibuster-proof “supermajority” of 60 senators in their caucus, the party is in jeopardy of losing control of the chamber.

Ten Democratic incumbent senators are considered vulnerable, which means that Republicans - now with 41 seats - could take control of the Senate if they hold all their seats in November and sweep all the vulnerable Democratic seats.

With less than nine months to go before Election Day, Republicans are solidly ahead to take at least five seats now held by Democrats - in North Dakota, Delaware, Nevada, Arkansas and Pennsylvania. Five others - Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and New York - are now fully in play.

Mr. Bayh became the fifth Democratic senator to announce that he will not seek re-election. He joins Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, Ted Kaufman of Delaware and Roland W. Burris of Illinois. In a surprising turn of events, the Illinois seat once held by Mr. Obama is now in play, with Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk leading Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias by six percentage points, according to the latest Rasmussen survey.

The retirements have been announced suddenly as polls show that voters increasingly oppose Mr. Obama’s massive health care reform plan and the prospect of huge federal budget deficits far into the future. Surveys taken in the run-up to last month’s Massachusetts special election - in which Republican Scott Brown won the seat held by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy - found strong voter anger over gridlock in Washington.

Mr. Obama is aware of voter dissatisfaction, and two weeks ago took the extraordinary step of allowing embattled Democrats to sternly question him about his policies. During a televised policy conference of Senate Democrats, he took questions almost exclusively from those locked in tough re-election campaigns - Mr. Reid, Mr. Bennet, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, California’s Barbara Boxer and Mr. Bayh.

Mr. Bayh and Mrs. Lincoln pointedly questioned Mr. Obama over his willingness to seek bipartisan solutions and work with moderates and Republicans. Mrs. Lincoln, trailing badly in her bid for re-election, urged Mr. Obama to “push back” against ideological elements within the Democratic Party.

Her campaign Web site was quick to highlight the exchange to Arkansas voters, distributing a news report on the event headlined “Lincoln challenges Obama over liberal ‘extremes.’ ”

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