Risking personal prestige and political capital, President Barack Obama took a high-profile plunge Thursday into the race for his former Senate seat, on behalf of a candidate who could embarrass Democrats — and the president himself — if he loses.
Illinois state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias trails Republican Rep. Mark Kirk in the race for campaign cash. He's also found himself embroiled in a controversy surrounding the failure of his family's Chicago bank.
With a thin grip on the Senate, Democrats can't afford to lose the seat. Neither can Obama afford the blow of seeing the seat from which he catapulted to the White House turn to Republican hands on his watch as effective chief of the Democratic Party.
Knowing he will own the outcome whether he engages directly or not, Obama waded in fully on Thursday, seeking to boost Giannoulias' fortunes by helping him rake in $1 million at a fundraiser and speaking warmly of his sterling values and trustworthiness.
"Alexi is my friend. I know his character. I know how much he loves this country. I know how committed he is to public service for all the right reasons," Obama said, after Giannoulias introduced him and the two posed for pictures, arm in arm. Giannoulis remained seated on stage as Obama spoke.
Campaigning for a single candidate isn't something Obama has done often in this election season.
He's only done so where the result could be pivotal to Democratic control of the Senate — and where an appearance by the president whose popularity has declined wouldn't do more harm than good.
That set includes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and California Sen. Barbara Boxer, both targeted for defeat by the GOP. Obama also campaigned last month for Missouri Senate candidate Robin Carnahan.
The fact that Obama came home to Chicago to stump for Giannoulias — the only candidate he'll campaign for during a two-week burst of especially intense nationwide fundraising — underscored the high stakes involved.
Democrats effectively hold a 59-41 advantage in the Senate, one vote shy of the 60 needed to overcome GOP stall tactics on legislation. Any erosion of the Democrats' majority — or even worse for Obama's party, a loss of control of the chamber — could severely weaken his agenda.
Obama told the lunchtime crowd of a few hundred a story about how Giannoulias had stopped a bank from pulling a clothing company's credit and threatening hundreds of jobs after the business fell on hard times. Giannoulias told the bank it stood to lose state business if it moved ahead with the plan.
"Because of what he did, Alexi helped save that company and save those jobs," Obama said. "That's the kind of person you want in the United States Senate."
Giannoulias may welcome the in-person support from the nation's top Democrat, but it could come with a price: Obama has a losing track record when it comes to candidates he has personally campaigned for.
Democrats lost governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey last year, and the party suffered a stunning defeat this year when Republicans flipped a Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts long held by the late Edward M. Kennedy.
"I couldn't be more thrilled that he is campaigning here. Every time he comes out, his candidate loses. So keep it coming," Catherina Wojtowicz, organizer of a Tea Party group in Chicago, said while standing outside the downtime hotel where Obama stumped for Giannoulias.
And Rep. Bobby Rush said that while it's good that Obama is "wrapping his arms around" Giannoulias, it will only go so far to help the candidate — whom he said needs to focus more on issues that matter and to travel more outside Chicago.
"Alexi's got a lot of work to do, a lot of work to do. He's got to get busy. He can't ride in on Obama's coattails," said Rush.
For one thing, Giannoulias has come up short on the money front, raising just $900,000 in the three-month period that ended in June, compared to the $2.3 million that Kirk hauled in during the same time.
He also has been dogged by the failure of his family's bank. Regulators closed Broadway Bank this year after it failed to raise new capital. Giannoulias was a Broadway Bank executive before his election to state office, and Kirk has used the issue to raise questions about Giannoulias' fitness to be a senator.
Kirk has had his share of problems, too.
The Naval Reserve officer recently acknowledged puffing up his military record, including claiming for himself a prestigious intelligence award that went to his unit. He also claimed to have served in the first Gulf War when he did not. Kirk has said he was "careless" in describing his military service and background.
Before launching into Thursday's fundraising round, Obama visited a Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Chicago, where the redesigned Explorer SUV will be made starting later this year. Giannoulias was on hand to grab valuable face-time with Obama, who introduced him as "our treasurer and soon-to-be United States senator."
Pairing such an official event with political appearances lets the White House bill taxpayers rather than the Democratic Party or individual candidates for most of the president's travel costs.
Later Thursday, Obama was to headline two more fundraisers, these for the Democratic Party generally, before making a late-night return to Washington. Those events together were to raise $1.5 million.
Associated Press writer Deanna Bellandi contributed to this story.
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