President Obama Hits the Campaign Trail to Save Senate Majority

Obama to stump for vulnerable Democrats in Colorado, Nevada.

Feb. 18, 2010— -- President Obama steps out of Washington and onto the 2010 campaign trail today in what looks like the start of a nine-month effort to save the Democratic majority in the Senate.

The president hits the road to lend his support to two vulnerable Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Obama's campaign push comes as his party looks increasingly on the ropes for the upcoming midterm elections.

When Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., took the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat from the Democrats last month and broke the Democrats' supermajority in the Senate, Republican officials crowed that it was a repudiation of the agenda of Obama and his party.

This week, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., announced he would not seek re-election, lamenting the hyper-partisanship that has prevented progress Washington.

Bayh is the fifth Democratic senator to announce his retirement. His departure means there are nine, possibly 10 Democratic Senate seats at risk in November and ushers in the possibility that Republicans could win control of the Senate.

Obama was able to redraw the electoral map in 2008, winning states that Democrats had not won in decades. But with his approval ratings hovering around 50 percent, there are questions about how and where Obama can be effective this year.

The president is on a multi-state campaign losing streak right now. He stumped for Democratic candidates in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey and for Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election in Massachusetts -- and all three lost.

Yet party officials say the midterms are a different story and that Obama will be active on the campaign trail this year and aggressively working for Democratic candidates where and when he can be helpful.

Obama is in Denver tonight for two fundraisers for Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who is facing a primary challenge from former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

One of the president's events with Bennet is a low-dollar, large audience event that an administration official said is "clearly a demonstration of the president's ability for widespread appeal," and, "an effort to help Democrats to implement the model that the president demonstrated with success during his own campaign."

An administration official noted that the Bennet event has been on the president's schedule for some time and cautioned against reading into it as a "reactionary" trip because of recent political events or the state of the race in Colorado.

Obama then travels to Las Vegas to raise some cash for the Democratic National Committee and appear with Reid, who is trailing in recent polls against the Republicans vying to replace him and saddled with low personal approval ratings.

Democrats hope that by linking candidates, especially vulnerable ones, to Obama, they can link them to legislative progress.

"President Obama, Harry Reid and Michael Bennet are working day in and day out to address the economic challenges facing Americans, and that has not been lost on voters," said Deirdre Murphy, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Murphy said Obama's appearances in Colorado and Nevada "put a spotlight on the choice voters will face come November: Do we want to go back to the economic policies that got us into this fiscal mess or do we want steady economic progress?"

Obama's stops in Colorado and Nevada are drawing fire from Republicans.

In Colorado, an ad from Republican Senate candidate Jane Norton calls on Obama to "pledge to balance the budget or else decline to seek reelection. That would be change we can believe in."

In Nevada, Republican officials have set up a conference call with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to push back on the president's visit.

Where Can Obama Be Effective for Democrats?

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll found that Republicans have been able to capitalize on doubts about the president's job performance to grow more competitive in challenging Democrats in November.

A party official said Obama will be critical for Democratic candidates by helping to jump start "organizing at the local level and building a robust grass-roots fundraising effort."

The president will be looking for opportunities to help candidates who "share his vision for advancing an agenda through Congress that makes progress on issues that have been ignored in Washington for too long," an administration official said, citing health care reform, regulatory reform and a jobs bill.

Administration and Democratic Party officials would not say where Obama will campaign over the next few months or which candidates have requested his time.

Should Obama Stay Home?

But already, one Democratic candidate has raised the possibility that Obama may not be a welcome addition at a campaign rally.

Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general who is running for retiring Sen. Chris Dodd's seat, said on Monday that it was "an open question" whether he would ask Obama to campaign on his behalf.

When asked if the president lending a hand would help or hurt his campaign, Blumenthal deferred: 'I can't comment."

Asked about Blumenthal's comments, an Obama administration official said they "wouldn't describe that as something anyone here obsesses over."

Matt Dowd, an ABC News contributor who served as chief strategist to Bush-Cheney 2004, said Obama should just stay put in Washington and skip the trail for now.

"The best thing Barack Obama can do right now is not go out and campaign for somebody but go and fix the situation or attempt to fix the situation in Washington in a real way," Dowd said. "That actually can provide a better halo effect than him showing up with a 49 percent job approval rating."

Democratic Party officials and administration officials didn't dispute that premise and agreed that having legislative accomplishments to point to could bring a boost on the campaign trail for their candidates.

"When the president's agenda advances through the Congress, it benefits both the members of Congress and the president, and it enhances the standing of both members of Congress and the president," an administration official said. "Good policy is good politics. Demonstrating the ability to get things done in Washington is going to be an important part of enhancing the president and Democrats in Washington's political standing."

That may be easier said than done given the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and the difficulty of pushing through any contentious legislation in an election year.

Can Democrats Campaign Against Washington -- But With Obama?

Dowd believes that Obama hitting the trail for Democratic candidates at this stage in the election cycle is "high risk, very little reward" for both the president and those whose names are on the ballot.

A presidential appearance ties the candidate to unpopular Washington, Dowd said, when candidates may be trying to show their independence.

In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 71 percent of Americans said they disapprove of Congress -- the most unpopular it has been since the Republican swept into power in the landslide of 1994.

Given that dismal view of the legislative branch, it is no wonder that candidates are trying to separate themselves from Washington when they are on the trail back home. But can they do that and stand beside the president?

"Barack Obama is no longer the outsider, he is Washington, he is the president and leader of the entire government now held by Democrats," Dowd said. "So he shows up and basically says I'm here from Washington and I'm here to help when most voters have no desire to hear that."

Senators Questioned Obama

After Brown's stunning victory in Massachusetts, Obama sought to rally Democratic senators and urged them to keep their eye on the ball.

In a question-and-answer session earlier this month, the president told Democratic senators to avoid playing it safe in order to win in November. Obama said that right now the best strategy for Democrats is to get things done.

"All that's changed in the last two weeks is that our party's gone from having the largest Senate majority in a generation to the second-largest Senate majority in a generation. And we've got to remember that," the president said. "We still have to lead."

The question-and-answer session itself was an element of the party's political strategy. Seven of the eight senators who got to ask a question of Obama in front of television cameras are facing tough re-election battles this fall.

The session provided nice sound bites for their constituents back home, showing the senators challenging the president and focusing on issues of local importance.

The political roadmap for Obama over the next nine months is far from certain, but he has said himself that he wants to hit the road more than he did in 2009. That increased travel allows him to tack on political events to his official schedule and bring media coverage and attention to a Democratic candidate through the use of the presidential bully pulpit and all the fanfare and trappings of the presidency like Air Force One and limo rides.

While White House and party officials say there is a large stack of requests for the president's time, Dowd sees an interesting dynamic developing over the next few months as candidates shy away from a presidential visit.

"Candidates will start saying, 'We'd love your money but we really don't want you hanging around,'" Dowd said. "I think you're going to see more and more of that and see more quote-unquote 'scheduling conflicts.'"

ABC News' Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.