Obama returns to home turf to rally party spirits

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / October 31, 2010

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CHICAGO — President Obama embarked on a last-ditch campaign marathon yesterday in a bid to blunt the political rebuke expected to be delivered by voters in Tuesday’s midterm elections, urging dispirited Americans to give Democrats more time to deliver on the promise of change the president made two years ago.

“A lot of you got involved in 2008 because you believed we were at a defining moment in our history,’’ Obama told a massive hometown crowd at a Chicago rally last night. “I know things are hard sometimes but this country was founded on hard . . . don’t let anyone tell you this fight hasn’t been worth it.’’

Democrats are hoping they can avoid the widely forecast anti-incumbent wave that could overturn the party’s majority in the US House and seriously erode its advantage in the Senate.

But Obama’s choice of locations to deliver his closing argument was telling: He made stops in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, places where he enjoyed broad support in 2008, before wrapping up last night in Illinois, where his party is struggling to prevent his former Senate seat from falling into the hands of Republicans. Obama was scheduled to visit Cleveland today.

The Illinois Senate race, between Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk, is at best a toss-up for Democrats, who need a strong turnout among their base to prevent the GOP from snatching a highly symbolic victory in Obama’s backyard.

In Pennsylvania, Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey are in a close Senate race, though most pollsters give Toomey the edge. The Connecticut Senate race is faring better for Democrats; polls show Richard Blumenthal leading Republican Linda McMahon.

Obama supporters who are sticking with the president and backing Democrats this fall foresee difficult times ahead for the party after Tuesday’s vote.

“Absolutely — I’m worried,’’ said Jarrod Ayme, 23, of Chicago, who works for a nonprofit agency. “I’m worried that [the Democrats’] power is going to dwindle considerably.’’

The president last night revved up Democrats at a rally just a few blocks from Lake Michigan and a few miles from Grant Park, where two years ago he celebrated an overwhelming Democratic victory with 240,000 ecstatic supporters.

The euphoria of that 2008 night has faded, as the nation’s slow economic recovery has undermined the president’s campaign themes of hope and change, and hurt his popularity. He also has come under fire in some quarters for pushing through a health care insurance overhaul that Republicans are promising to roll back if they seize power.

“I was gone overseas for the first six months of his presidency, and when I got back the perception of him seemed to have totally changed. . . . So many people were pessimistic,’’ said Matti Scannell, 19, of Chicago, who traveled to Spain in 2009.

Democrats are fighting to hold onto threatened Senate seats in California, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Colorado, Washington, and West Virginia. In Nevada, the majority leader of the US Senate, Harry Reid, is fighting to save his career against Republican Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle. Democratic seats in North Dakota, Arkansas, and Indiana have already been all but written off as lost.

The Republican House minority leader, John Boehner, who would likely become speaker if his party takes a US House majority on Tuesday, said yesterday that Republicans stand ready to bring more transparency to government and cut federal spending if voters entrust them with the reins of power. “We’ve tried it President Obama’s way,’’ said Boehner, in the weekly Republican address. “We’ve tried it Washington’s way. It hasn’t worked. It’s time to put the people back in charge.’’

Obama has been trying for weeks to build a firewall against Democratic losses by rallying supporters in states with close races, a strategy that led him back to his hometown.

The contest between Giannoulias, the state treasurer, and Kirk, a five-term congressman from the northern Chicago suburbs, is one of the closest Senate races in the country. Most of the polls suggest the race is a statistical tie, within the typical margin of error for opinion surveys.

The tight race “is a good metaphor for what’s going on nationally,’’ said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “You’ve got the president trying to bring the Democratic base — women, African-Americans, Hispanics — back to their candidates, trying to generate enthusiasm in a state the Democrats have dominated.’’

The seat Obama gave up when he won the presidency is open this fall; Roland Burris, who was appointed by then-governor Rod Blagojevich to serve out Obama’s unfinished term, declined to run again.

The campaign to replace Burris is between two men who are considered rising stars of their parties.

Giannoulias, (pronounced jeh-NOO-lee-us) a Boston University graduate, entered politics four years ago after helping manage Broadway Bank, a Chicago community lender founded by his father. In 2006, with support from then-senator Obama, Giannoulias, then just 30, became the nation’s youngest state treasurer.

But the private banking experience that was so helpful in his last race has been a liability this year. Broadway Bank failed in April and was taken over by the FDIC. And Giannoulias has been dogged by revelations that Broadway loaned $20 million to two Chicago felons, sometimes more colorfully described as “mob figures’’ in the local media, while Giannoulias was a senior loan officer.

Those embarrassments might have crushed Giannoulias’ campaign months ago if Kirk hadn’t evened the playing field by exaggerating his résumé.

Kirk, 51, apologized in the spring for making false statements about his 21-year Navy Reserve career, including the untrue claim that he had served in the Gulf War. He speaks contritely about learning “a painful lesson’’ from the episode, though he has resisted explaining why he overstated his record. He is the type of centrist Republican that typically has the best chance of winning in Democratic-leaning Illinois, specialists said.

“Mark Kirk is not a hyper-partisan,’’ said Gabe Rubin, 18, of Skokie, who stood for hours in an eye-watering cold wind demonstrating for the Kirk campaign outside a debate last week. “I want someone who votes what he believes is best for his constituents, not what his party tells him to vote.’’

Kirk’s campaign office did not respond to several messages for an interview.

Throughout the hard-fought campaign, the candidates have eagerly exploited each other’s missteps.

“All the campaign ads begin with smears,’’ said John Brehm, a University of Chicago political science professor. “It’s been pretty dirty. Though perhaps I shouldn’t use the word ‘dirty,’ because what they’re saying about each other is true.’’

The tone of the race has been so relentlessly negative that Giannoulias surprised campaign watchers last week by promising to run only positive ads in the final days.

His prohibition on attacks did not extend to debates — the two candidates exchanged unpleasantries in person last Wednesday in their final televised forum. The tone was at times bitter and they frequently talked over each other.

On Friday, Giannoulias and his mother canvassed on the busy streets of Boystown, a Chicago district with a large gay population. A jovial Giannoulias said his campaign’s field operation was ready.

“Turnout in this city is going to be through the roof,’’ he predicted.

He will need a large turnout from the city’s Democratic base to win, and to save the president from an embarrassing rejection by the people who know him best.