Obama fights his last campaign mostly in living rooms, hotel ballrooms

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 28, 2014 1:20 AM

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is fighting his last campaign mostly at staid Democratic fund-raising events in hotel ballrooms and the private homes of donors, a far cry from the huge crowds who turned out in droves during his White House runs and helped elect him twice.

This is not where Obama wanted to be in his second term. With the president's job approval near 40 percent, however, a public rally with Obama would be a liability for most Democrats in contested states where U.S. Senate control will be decided on Nov. 4 elections.

But Obama has gamely traveled far and wide as the chief Democratic fundraiser, headlining about 60 donor events this year and raising millions of dollars to help pay for campaign ads and voter turnout activities for congressional candidates.

It is not an unheard-of position for a president in his second term, when popularity can begin to fade. Republicans also kept his predecessor, George W. Bush, at a distance in 2006 when the unpopular Iraq war dragged down his ratings.

But it is striking it has happened to Obama, whose "yes we can" campaign in 2008 generated enormous crowds and enthusiasm.

A week before the elections, Republicans are in a strong position to gain the six seats they need to recapture a Senate majority. Obama has sounded the alarm.

"This is the last election that I'm involved with that really makes a difference," he said in a recent interview with radio host Steve Harvey.

The fund-raising circuit has taken Obama to New York high-rise apartment buildings, Washington hotel ballrooms, a Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore and private homes across the country - wherever a crowd will gather to write checks to the party.

At actress Gwyneth Paltrow's house in Los Angeles, reception guests paid $1,000 and those who stayed for dinner contributed $15,000. At the New York home of financier Mark Gallogly, guests paid $25,000 to $32,400 to attend.

As Obama talked, guests quietly clinked wine glasses and nibbled on crudite in a room filled with quality art. The scene is similar at each stop: The host, typically a wealthy Democrat who has brought together dozens of contributors under one roof, introduces the president and turns the microphone over to Obama.

White House officials say Obama is doing what he can for the party, whether by raising money, sharing his grassroots voter network or bolstering turnout. In this final week before next Tuesday's elections, he will shift his emphasis to attend rallies in five mostly friendly states.

"Our approach to the midterms has been asking campaigns how we can help," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

Many Senate Democrats in tough re-election races, including Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Udall in Colorado and Mark Pryor in Arkansas, have kept Obama at arm's length and emphasized their independence. But Republicans say Senate Democratic candidates cannot truly separate themselves from the president.

"Every time the Democrats try to distance themselves, we remind voters that they have been bought and paid for by Obama due to his fundraising, and have supported his policies every step of the way," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.

Obama conveys an optimistic tone in his stump speech about an improving economy but cites several global crises that are causing unease among Americans. The economy is getting better, he said in New York recently, but "despite that, I think there's some anxiety across the country."

Mike McCurry, who served as Democratic President Bill Clinton's press secretary, said the U.S. economy is weighing down Obama despite recent improvements.

"People still feel uncertain about the future of the economy, even though all the economic numbers look good and there is ample evidence that the economy is gaining strength," he said.

Losing the Senate would put Republicans in control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress, complicating Obama's last two years in office. For Obama, who won most of his legislative achievements when Democrats controlled Congress during his first two years in office, it is dismal news.

"It's nice that some of you took a picture with me. I'm glad to do it," Obama said at a recent fundraiser in San Francisco. "But the main thing I need right now is votes."

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by John Whitesides and Ken Wills)