The Obama Factor: How the President's Star Power Could Hurt Vulnerable Democrats

Experts say Democrats should avoid riding President Obama's coattails in swing states.

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In 2008, Democrats were tripping over eachother to score campaign appearances with rock star candidate Barack Obama. Now with the president's fragile 47 percent approval rating, Democratic congressmen facing re-election are hesitant to latch onto the president's coattails.

Already several Democrats in competitive races have missed key Obama appearances in their home states. [See the Most Competitive Senate Races of 2012.]

In January, the Hill reported that Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown attended to his own previously scheduled meetings in Ohio while the president spoke about the economy at a Cleveland high school. The story also pointed to Sen. Claire McCaskill's decision to stay in Washington to vote instead of campaigning alongside Obama in Missouri.

And the Orlando Sentinel reported that Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who is up for re-election in 2012, also chose to forgo an appearance with the president in January, citing previously scheduled meetings.

Wanting to avoid attacks from constituents about high gas prices, Democrats like New York Rep. Bill Owens chided the president for vetoing the Keystone Pipeline in January.

"With conflicts overseas driving up prices at the pump and so many Americans out looking for work, I am deeply disappointed that the White House has formally rejected the Keystone XL pipeline permit," Owens said in a statement.

Democratic candidates are right to be wary. A GOP official says voters in swing states, the South, and even some parts of New York, Arizona and California will see strategic campaign ads placing Democratic candidates in lockstep with the president on controversial economic and healthcare issues.

And even some Democratic officials worry that the "Obama factor" could impact tight races in districts that could go either way.

"The reality is that nobody wants to get caught up in the mudslinging that goes on in these races," says Walton Robinson, the communications director for the North Carolina Democratic Party. "I wouldn't begrudge anybody choosing that they didn't want to be sucked up in that vacuum."

Robinson says in his state it's not uncommon for the GOP to try to link Democratic congressman to the mess of Washington, and he adds that recent redistricting made the Democrats' job of  keeping their seats even tougher. But Robinson remains optimistic.

"Our representatives are very much representatives of their districts. At the end of the day, people want to be a voice for their communities," he says. "As far as the party goes, we are going to just work hard on the local level."

On the flip side, the National Republican Congressional Committee says unpopular Obama policies have poisoned North Carolinians' taste for Democrats.

"There is clearly a bad moon rising for the Democrats who are seeing these seats slipping away from them everyday after being saddled with the albatross of a failed Obama economic Agenda," says NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek.

Lumping struggling presidents with members of their party is not a new tactic.

[See a slide show of 14 establishment candidates who lost to insurgents.]

Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, says that in 2004 the Democrats did their best to associate GOP candidates with the presidency of George W. Bush.

But Hagle adds struggling congressional candidates have to be careful about how they interact with the polarizing president during an election year.

Iowa's a swing state and where Obama got his start, making it a likely campaign stop for the president, Hagle says.

But Hagle warns that Obama must think to the future and be careful not to disrupt a sensitive congressional race between incumbent Democrat Rep. Leonard Boswell and incumbent Republican Rep. Tom Latham who are facing off in a newly-formed district.

"I think where Obama could hurt is if you have a Democrat incumbent that is in a tough race," Hagle says. "He is going to want to have Democrats in control and he is going to have to be somewhat strategic about it. Maybe it is not always helpful for him to be in a particular place at a particular time."