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10.12.10

Obama in Enemy Territory

Will bashing the GOP for supposedly funneling foreign money into campaigns help save the House? Richard Wolffe talks to the White House about their risky home-stretch strategy.

There are few battleground states where President Obama should be as unwelcome as Ohio. One state poll pegged his approval rating at 40 per cent last month, with independents rating him several points lower than that.

Yet that is where the White House is deploying their biggest assets—the president and first lady—in their first joint campaign stop since their own 2008 election with events in Cleveland and Columbus this weekend.

The deployment of the Obamas to Ohio points to a strategy that turns the conventional wisdom of Washington on its head.

With those kind of approval ratings, there is no way the president should be campaigning in public—especially for Governor Ted Strickland. Strickland famously campaigned against Obama in the Democratic primaries, helping Hillary Clinton to a substantial victory on the very pocketbook issues that have defined the 2010 cycle. That defeat left Obama struggling to connect with older, working voters through Pennsylvania for several painful weeks in 2008. Pennsylvania and Ohio remain some of the toughest battlegrounds for Obama and Democrats across the country.

Strickland was down by double-digits in polls last month against the former GOP congressman John Kasich. But Strickland narrowed the gap to the low single digits by the start of this month. While the race has opened back up a little since then, Strickland is once again competitive and can ill afford any missteps.

His readiness to campaign with the president suggests that media reports have left a misleading impression of Democrats running away from the White House. “We’re getting request after request from candidates across the country every day,” said one senior White House official.

The Ohio events for the Obamas—a DNC rally in Columbus and a fundraiser for Strickland in Cleveland—point to the core strategy for the White House in the closing weeks of the midterms. The president’s twin jobs: to raise money for competitive Democrats and to lift turnout among the younger voters and minorities who helped him to his own big victory just two years ago.

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Obama’s aides say the rallies are intended to energize a base that is markedly less enthusiastic than its counterpart on the right. That’s no mean feat; after some earlier signals from the White House that the Democrats could well lose the House in November, the president and his team must demonstrate to Democrats everywhere that they are willing to fight and bleed to keep the party in power.

That helps explain why the White House continues to press outside groups—such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—to reveal their donors. Not because the issue of campaign finance is one voters care about. But to demonstrate to Democrats that this election is worth fighting for—and that the result is far from determined.

Why did the White House wait until now to raise the campaign finance issue? “Because now is when the money is getting dumped into the election,” a senior Obama aide said.

For his part, Rove fired back hard, denying that his group taps overseas sources of funding, and accusing Obama of hypocrisy. "We do not solicit foreign entities and we tell people that we will not accept foreign money," Rove told "Good Morning America" Tuesday.

Obama dropped his stump speech line about outside groups at his campaign events in Miami on Monday evening. But White House officials insisted there was nothing significant about the omission and predicted that the president would return to the attack shortly.

“He’ll continue to take aim at outside groups because millions of dollars are getting poured into all these elections,” said a senior Obama aide. “People are trying to move our democracy in unaccountable ways. If we want to make progress on the economy, then you have to vote for people who are going to do just that, not the people are who are going to go backwards.”

Why did the White House wait until the final weeks of the election to raise such an issue? After all, polls suggest that campaign finance has little bearing on their main concern: the economy.

“Because now is when the money is getting dumped into the election,” the senior aide said. “People are appalled that there’s so much unaccountable money in our politics. Especially independent voters, who really care about this.”

Obama’s travel plans remain fluid for the home stretch of the campaign. The president plans a western swing next week that takes in three of the highest profile Senate races in the country: Patty Murray in Washington state, Barbara Boxer in California and Harry Reid in Nevada. The targets are strategically chosen: If the Democrats hold on to Nevada and Washington, there is no realistic chance the GOP can take control of the Senate.

Wherever Obama travels, he and aides seem to care little for the media’s skepticism about their claim that foreign money is being spent through the Chamber of Commerce.

To the president’s inner circle, the issue reminds independents, as well as their base, that Obama ran as a reformer who could end business as usual in 2008. At a time of downbeat messages about the economy, Obama’s aides have concluded that the best—and perhaps only—form of defense is to go on offense.

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.