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Some Democrats keep distance from Obama

Aligning themselves too closely with the White House could be a strategic mistake ahead of the midterm election, they fear. It's an approach that has the administration's tacit blessing.

February 14, 2010|By Peter Nicholas

Reporting from Washington — As President Obama's approval ratings sag and the mood of voters sours, some Democratic congressional candidates are distancing themselves from the White House, with the back-channel blessing of party officials.

The candidates are positioning themselves as independent voices no less frustrated with the Obama administration than people back home.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat who represents a California Central Valley district burdened by high unemployment and home foreclosures, said in an interview: "The Obama administration has failed miserably in trying to solve the problem."

Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat who also represents California's Central Valley, blames Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for not doing enough to alleviate a drought that has hobbled farmers. Costa said his phone calls to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have gone unreturned.

"They're not listening carefully enough to the people I represent," Costa said.

Asked whether he wants the president to campaign for him, Costa said: "I'm more popular in my district than the president."

Far from discouraging an independent stance, the White House political operation and the Democratic congressional leadership are tacitly putting out word that the strategy may be a useful one, according to party campaign operatives.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview: "Our candidates need to reflect the values and priorities of their districts. And that means on some issues they'll support the Obama administration's position, and on some issues they'll oppose it."

Moving in lock step with the White House poses risks for certain Democrats. Some 49 House Democrats serve in districts that Republican John McCain won in the 2008 presidential election.

In this climate, an array of Democrats are confronting the administration in unusually blunt terms.

Cardoza's district went heavily for Obama, but it has been devastated by the recession. One county he represents, Stanislaus, has the highest foreclosure rate in the state, with 1 out of every 107 homes receiving a foreclosure notice last month. Cardoza has suggested that Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan needs to resign for failing to deliver needed financial assistance.

In a letter to Donovan last month, Cardoza wrote: "If you can't turn your department around then you should do the honorable thing."

Cardoza said in an interview, "The president isn't welcome to campaign with me right now. He is welcome to come to my district and help me do my job, which is providing relief to my constituents."

A moment for embattled party members to showcase their differences with Obama came during his appearance before Senate Democrats this month. Democrats in tough reelection campaigns posed questions that in some cases reflected profound differences with the administration.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who is running for reelection in a state won by McCain, urged Obama to "push back against people in our own party that want extremes." In short order, her campaign website featured a report: "Lincoln challenges Obama on liberal 'extremes.' "

Lincoln's campaign manager, Steve Patterson, said that Obama's limited ground operation in Arkansas in the presidential election suggests that he would not be a huge help.

"If I'm sitting back to think about the best draws to raise money in Arkansas, I don't think it would be President Obama," Patterson said.

Some party veterans cautioned that it is futile for Democrats to create a separate identity from that of the White House. Midterm elections are invariably a referendum on the president's performance, said former Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, who once chaired the Democrats' Senate election committee.

"Everybody is in one boat," Torricelli said in an interview. "I'd recommend correcting the course of the boat rather than swimming away from it."

peter.nicholas@ latimes.com

Janet Hook in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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