RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Her re-election in doubt, North Carolina's Democratic senator has an uncomfortable decision to make as President Barack Obama appears in her state before a critical audience she's trying to woo: Veterans.
Join in the same camera shot as Obama, who lost North Carolina in 2012 and is unpopular in the state, and Sen. Kay Hagan could offer her Republican opponent fresh attack ad footage tying her to the president. Stay away from Obama while he visits North Carolina on Tuesday, and Hagan risks alienating minority voters who generally support the president.
Either way, Obama is casting a shadow on an event with the potential to boost Hagan's credibility with veterans and military personnel. The president's speech is scheduled about an hour before Hagan's. Even if they don't appear together publicly, they'll be in the same building at the same time. Already Monday, GOP candidate Thom Tillis released a statement accusing Hagan of being a "rubber stamp" for the Obama administration.
But the American Legion National Convention is a speaking engagement Hagan cannot afford to skip in a state with some of the nation's busiest Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard installations.
Hagan, locked in one of the country's hottest Senate races as Republican attempt to gain six seats and a majority, is one of several struggling Democrats in the South distancing herself from Obama.
Hagan was elected in 2008 as Obama won the state. Four years later, Mitt Romney edged Obama for the state as his signature health care law drove down his popularity. Since then, Obama's support there was further eroded by the national uproar over inadequate care at veterans hospitals.
North Carolina has four major Veterans Affairs medical centers. One in Fayetteville had some of the worst average waiting times for veterans seeking primary care treatment, according to a June report by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
And Hagan has been among the Democrats most vocal in expressing her displeasure. Calling the waiting times "appalling and disturbing," she urged VA officials to visit Fayetteville to address the problem. She co-sponsored a $17 billion bill to improve veterans' health care. And she called for the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who stepped down amid the scandal.
Hagan sought to distance herself anew from the president ahead of his trip, saying the administration "has not yet done enough to earn the lasting trust of our veterans."
But the Tillis campaign on Monday sought again to associate Hagan with what it called Obama's "failure to provide our veterans with the health care that they deserve." Supporters of Tillis, the speaker of the state House, previously funded ads seeking to tie Hagan to problems in veterans care. Tillis isn't scheduled to appear at the convention.
Hagan campaign spokesman Chris Hayden said Tillis was trying to use veterans as "political pawns."
If Hagan and Obama do appear in public together, their body language will be closely gauged.
"Their strategy is respectful criticism," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "On a lot of these issues, the president is taking positions that are unpopular with the voters these Democratic candidates are trying to cultivate."
The situation is similar to one Republican candidates faced in 2006 as President George W. Bush's popularity waned, noted Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University.
"Presidents are smart enough to know it's not a personal thing; it's a political thing," Taylor said.
Amber Moon, a spokeswoman for Hagan's Senate office, wouldn't say Monday whether Hagan planned to appear onstage with Obama.