Reporting from Washington — President Obama has hardly avoided the campaign trail this year, appearing across the country to raise money for candidates and urge supporters to get out to the polls in November.
But his appearance Thursday at a public rally outside Washington was rare in this regard: The candidate invited him to be there.
Obama went to Bowie, Md., to support the reelection campaign of Gov. Martin O'Malley, saying O'Malley had "made tough choices in tough times to move Maryland forward."
The last time Obama appeared at a public event at the invitation of a fellow Democrat was in January, when he sought to boost Martha Coakley's flagging and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Edward M. Kennedy's former Senate seat.
For O'Malley, the decision to bring Obama in was a no-brainer; a recent Washington Post poll pegged the president's job approval rating in Maryland at more than 60%. But with Obama's rating slipping in many key states, other Democrats have been reluctant to appear with their party's leader.
They have welcomed his financial drawing power, however. Through September, the president has headlined nearly 50 fundraisers this year, according to CBS' Mark Knoller, the unofficial statistician of the White House press corps.
Following the Maryland rally, the president was scheduled to travel home to Chicago for a series of fundraisers benefitting local Democratic candidates, especially Senate hopeful Alexi Giannoulias.
That's not to say Obama's presence isn't being used by other candidates: Republicans love to feature him in their campaign ads. In Kentucky, a new television spot for GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul even employs an Obama impersonator who says Democrat Jack Conway "supported me for president, helped bankroll my campaign, and even fought to pass my healthcare plan."
Perhaps no candidate is more wary of being linked to Obama than West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, who is running in a special election to complete the late Robert C. Byrd's Senate term. Manchin's approval ratings are among the best of any governor in the nation — 66%, according to a Fox News poll released this week.
But Republican John Raese took to the airwaves almost as soon as Manchin announced his candidacy to tell state voters that he would be "Obama's rubber stamp" in Washington. The argument could be lethal, given that the same Fox News poll showed the president's approval rating in the state at an anemic 29%.
Manchin himself told a television interviewer Thursday that West Virginians were upset that Obama and others in Washington "overreached."
"The president's not running for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia. I am," Manchin said.
Of particular concern to Democrats is the fact that Obama's job numbers are perilously low in other key states with tough Senate races. In Missouri, a CNN poll put Obama's approval at 35%; in Nevada, 39%.
In Pennsylvania, where Obama will hold a second major rally organized through the Democratic National Committee on Sunday, his approval ratings hover just about 40%.
David Plouffe, who ran Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and now advises the national party on political strategy, countered that the president had been an asset by shaping the message nationwide for Democrats, framing the coming election as a choice between those who would move the country forward and Republicans who would return to policies that brought about the current economic crisis.
More helpful to Democrats, he added, are efforts to boost turnout among those so-called surge voters, who supported Obama in 2008 but voted only sporadically, if at all, before.
"We're going to go where we think it can be helpful and where candidates think it can be helpful," Plouffe said.