The Upshot

Ahead of midterms, Democrats consider where Obama can help — or hurt

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With a little over three months before Election Day, President Obama will soon step up his campaigning for Democrats in hopes of saving his party’s majority in Congress. But given the president’s own less-than-thrilling poll numbers, Democrats are faced with a choice: Where can Obama help — and where would he hurt?

It’s a question that has faced every president. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were asked to play big roles in certain congressional races and to hide out in others. But with Obama, it’s a little more tricky. Many of the Democrats’ toughest races this fall are in areas of the country where the president has seen his poll numbers decline the most in the last year, including Pennsylvania, Indiana, Colorado, Virginia, Florida and Missouri.

Democrats desperately want to engage the voters who turned out in record-breaking numbers for Obama in 2008. But candidates, especially those in tough races, have been wary about embracing controversial Obama policies like health care and Wall Street reform. Some candidates want the president to have their back and defend the legislation he championed. Others simply don't. Asked to define the Dems’ Obama strategy heading into the fall, a party strategist summed it up like this: “Pick and choose.”

Already, Obama has had to pick his battles. He was a virtual no-show in Arkansas’s Senate race, where Blanche Lincoln fended off a primary challenger. Now, new state-by-state Gallup polling numbers show why: 52 percent of likely voters in the state disapprove of  Obama’s performance as president. Obama endorsed Lincoln, but campaigning with her might have hurt her Senate bid — which is why you probably won’t see him in the state this fall.

In Pennsylvania, Obama tried to boost Sen. Arlen Specter’s re-election bid, but his endorsement in the Democratic primary fell flat. No doubt the onetime GOP senator’s party switch didn’t help, but Obama’s rep in the state isn’t what it was in 2008, when he won Pennsylvania by double-digits. According to Gallup, Obama's approval rating has slipped to 48 percent — down almost 15 points since he was elected. Will he return to campaign for Joe Sestak this fall? Neither the Sestak campaign nor the White House will say.

Yet Obama isn’t in trouble all over the country. Gallup finds his poll numbers highest on the West Coast, where he has appeared several times to help raise money for California Sen. Barbara Boxer and is expected to visit again in coming weeks. He’s also got higher-than-average numbers in Illinois, where he’ll campaign for Democratic Senate hopeful Alexi Giannoulias on Aug. 5.

In some cases, Obama’s ability to raise money trumps his bad numbers in the state. At 41 percent, Obama’s approval rating in Missouri is the 10th-lowest lowest in the country, according to Gallup. But last month, he helped Democrat Robin Carnahan raised more than half a million dollars for her Senate campaign. The primary is Aug. 3; it’s unclear whether Obama will return to the state to stump among general voters this fall.

In Nevada, Obama's approval rating is at 48 percent -- higher than Harry Reid's. The president has traveled to the state three times to help the Senate majority leader raise cash for his re-election campaign, and Reid officials and the White House say Obama is likely to return again before November.

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