Considering Obama

Salena Zito

8/10/2008 12:00:03 AM - Salena Zito

A longtime Western Pennsylvania politician once said, “You run with the top of the ticket when you can, and run away from it when you have to.”

Which explains U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire’s short answer as to whether he will campaign in his district with Barack Obama: He’ll “consider it.”

Altmire -– a previous skeptic of offshore drilling who now supports it, pitting him against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -– said it will depend on when the presumptive nominee comes to town and if their schedules mesh.

“I am not going to avoid it,” he added.

“He is probably not going to run to it, either,” says one Democrat strategist who, for obvious reasons, isn’t eager to have his name used.

Altmire represents Pennsylvania’s 4th Congressional District, a swath of Reagan Democrat geography in the western corridor that went overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in this year’s primary and significantly for George W. Bush in 2004.

Altmire’s apparent hesitancy to coordinate a schedule with Obama has nothing to do with Obama’s race and everything to do with the perception of him as a liberal Democrat, which is a different world to people who live in this district.

“My suspicion is that he would have avoided high-profile visits with Mike Dukakis, too, given the chance,” the same strategist adds.

Altmire said he takes the word “represent” seriously, far more so than he does the labels “Democrat” or “Republican.” During Pennsylvania’s primary, he did not endorse Clinton or Obama. When Obama secured the nomination, Altmire said he would support the nominee -– still avoiding an all-out endorsement.

“He is running a brilliant campaign,” notes a Republican campaign staffer working on other congressional races. “Certainly, it is what I would have advised him to do.”

Western Pennsylvania Democrats, like those in any Rust Belt region, are not as in tune with the national party as, say, Philly and its collar counties will be.

In Altmire’s district, you have a high concentration of older, white, middle- to lower-income women -- a demographic Obama is having a hard time with in terms of closing the deal against John McCain.

Yet if you contrast this region with areas of North Carolina, with a large black population, Obama can really expand his base -- especially in Carolina college towns, where he appears able to widen his voting universe with young people. As long as the Obama people target absentee voting or other early-voting efforts with those new bases, he can make up his ground.

Altmire is not alone. Countless congressional seats exist in states such as Kentucky or West Virginia where Democrats will runs as “representatives” -– and not as associates of Obama (or Pelosi, for that matter).

And Obama is not alone in this phenomenon, either: Think how many Republican congressional candidates avoided running with George W. Bush in 2004. That avoidance was amplified during the 2006 midterm election when congressional campaign schedulers told the White House, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

As for presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, he’s the one candidate who may not have a hard time finding congressmen to be photographed with during the campaign.

“McCain does not face the same problem because he was never really perceived as a conservative Republican even though that's what he's become in this campaign,” explains Democrat analyst Steve McMahon. “He was the Democrats’ favorite Republican, until Barack Obama secured the nomination.”