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ON THE TRAIL

Obama's Stealth Campaigning

Behind The Scenes, The President Begins To Assume The Role Of Campaigner In Chief

For the first time since he took office, there are signs that President Obama is getting into campaign mode for 2010 and '12 -- even though it doesn't always look like he's doing so.

The most high-profile example was his decision this weekend to name Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah as ambassador to China. To be sure, Huntsman is more than qualified for the posting. But the appointment was also widely praised by students of the political game as a shrewd move to take one of his strongest potential 2012 rivals out of the country and, as such, out of the race.

 

Pennsylvania and Illinois certainly look like prime targets for the president to flex his muscle.

What hasn't gotten as much attention, however, was his decision to weigh in on an intraparty fight in New York. Late last Friday we learned that Obama, along with top Democratic Party leaders Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked Rep. Steve Israel to drop a potential challenge to freshman Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Given Obama's reticence to actively involve himself in campaigns thus far -- there are still some Democratic insiders who grumble that he didn't do enough to help Scott Murphy in the N.Y.-20 special election -- this represents a significant development.

It's also reminiscent of a White House strategy employed by Karl Rove during George W. Bush's first midterm election. In 2002, Rove worked hard to help clear out "troublesome" intraparty Senate contests. In Minnesota, he got Vice President Dick Cheney's help in convincing Tim Pawlenty, then the state House majority leader, to stand aside for Norm Coleman as he prepared to challenge Democrat Paul Wellstone. This same sort of pressure was brought to bear in New Hampshire, where Chief of Staff Andy Card endorsed John Sununu over incumbent Bob Smith, and North Carolina, where the White House was active in keeping the field clear for its hand-picked candidate, Elizabeth Dole.

 

Back then, of course, control of the Senate was teetering on the edge. This time around, it's a question of keeping Democrats at or above 60 seats. Even so, it seems as if this White House isn't willing to take anything for granted.

So where else might we see the White House flexing its muscle? Pennsylvania and Illinois certainly look like prime targets.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak has not exactly embraced Sen. Arlen Specter's party switch, and has openly talked about a primary challenge. A Sestak win wouldn't necessarily put this seat in danger for Democrats -- likely Republican nominee Pat Toomey is an awkward fit for the state and would be easier for Sestak to defeat than a GOP Specter. Even so, Sestak is an untested commodity (his win in 2006 had as much to do with the collapse of Rep. Curt Weldon as anything else) and national Democrats would likely be forced to spend lots of time, energy and money that wouldn't be necessary if Specter were their nominee.

More importantly, however, a Specter loss would be a major embarrassment to Obama. Just a day after Specter's switch, the president hosted the man he called "one tough hombre" at the White House and told an assembled group of reporters that Specter "will have my full support in the Democratic primary." The easiest way to help ensure a primary win, of course, is to make sure that the primary never happens in the first place. Sure, Obama could cut ads for Specter in a primary, but that would force Obama into a very public display of political calculation. And that, it seems, is what Obama's been working hard to avoid.

 

The more awkward situation for Obama, however, is his home state.

Up until this point, the president has been able to avoid much of the drama surrounding Sen. Roland Burris' appointment in Illinois. But Burris may be the least of Obama's problems right now. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias' strong fundraising and statewide name ID make him the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination. It doesn't hurt that he's known as a friend and basketball buddy of Obama's. But he's got some pretty serious baggage. Critics have accused Giannoulias of not properly monitoring the state college fund's investment strategies, leading to an $85 million loss. More recently, he was forced to defend using proceeds from that program to purchase a $26,000 Ford Escape Hybrid. Combine these with loans that his family's bank made to Tony Rezko and you have a candidate who'll be easy for the GOP to link to disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

If Giannoulias is out, then who gets in? National Democrats have been trying to persuade Attorney General Lisa Madigan to run. Will the White House turn up the pressure too?

This isn't to say that Obama's all about sticks and no carrots. Just last weekend, while in Indiana for the Notre Dame commencement speech, he also made a lower-profile fundraising appearance for some Democratic congressmen. Three of the four -- Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth, and Baron Hill -- sit in swing districts. But all have ultimately supported his fiscal policies, including stimulus funding and the budget. The message he sent with this fundraiser was clear: If you stick with me, I'll stand by you.

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