WASHINGTON — While some Democratic candidates nationally are keeping their distance, Washington Sen. Patty Murray is welcoming President Barack Obama later this month to the state even as his poll numbers have faded and Republicans call the visit a sign her campaign is desperate.
Democrats counter that Obama's Aug. 17 trip is a smart strategic move that will help her raise tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash and energize the party's base.
Murray, with a few exceptions, has been a consistent supporter of the administration's initiatives, including health care and Wall Street reform. It's a record she shows no intention of downplaying and is prepared to run on.
"I have no problem with the president of the United States seeing what I see every weekend when I come home," Murray said in an interview. "It provides a touchstone for him."
Details of the trip have yet to be firmed up, but it will include a fundraiser and a public appearance somewhere in the Seattle area. Murray said the visit will allow her to talk with the president about the cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, aerospace and Boeing, and the state's high tech and green energy sectors.
"Going to the White House is one thing," Murray said. "But he needs to come out and see what is real."
Obama hasn't been to Washington state since an appearance before the 2008 presidential primary. But he is no stranger. Prior to that he campaigned for Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell when she was running in 2006.
Obama carried the state by 18 percentage points in the 2008 general election. But in recent polls, his approval numbers in the state hover just below 50 percent — higher than in some states and lower than in others. Nationally, his approval rate is about 50 percent, according to some of the latest polls. Voters are expressing growing skepticism with his handling of the economy, and some polls show barely one-third of voters support his signature health care legislation.
The president has spent limited time campaigning for Democratic candidates, but that is expected to change. His stop in Washington is just one of eight he will make in a swing that will touch down in California, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Georgia and Florida.
Some candidates consider him a liability. The Democratic nominee for governor in Texas, Bill White, has said he won't appear with Obama, and the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Ohio, Lee Fisher, has skipped some campaign appearances with the president.
Murray has had no such qualms.
"How can you go to the White House and say you need something if you don't want him in your state?" Murray said.
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said the White House knows Murray is in a tough race and that Republicans can't take control of the Senate unless they beat her.
"We have heard that, and we are going out to help her get re-elected," Pfeiffer said in an interview. "The re-election of Patty Murray is very important to Washington state and to the Democrats' ability to keep control of the Senate."
Pfeiffer said Obama will focus mostly on jobs and the economy as he campaigns.
"This election is a choice between going forward or going back, and that's what Patty Murray's campaign is about," he said. "It's a very clear choice."
Pfeiffer said the election in Washington is not about Obama but about what Murray has done for the state.
"The president will go where he can be helpful, and we think and Sen. Murray thinks he can be helpful in Washington state," he said.
Republicans see Obama's visit through a different lens.
"Clearly she is desperate," Dino Rossi, Murray's likely Republican opponent in the race, said in an interview. "She is launching negative ads against me, and it isn't even the primary."
The campaign has already taken on a rough edge. Murray has run ads criticizing Rossi for supporting repeal of the new financial reforms, and an independent, conservative group questions in an ad whether Murray is still the "mom in tennis shoes" she first ran as.
Rossi said Obama will undoubtedly raise money for Murray and energize the Democratic base. But he added that the president's popularity is not transferable, pointing to Republican wins in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia that came despite the president campaigning for the Democratic candidates.
Chris Vance, former chairman of the state's Republican Party and a political consultant, agreed.
"You don't send the president to campaign for someone who isn't in trouble," Vance said. "Of course he is coming. You don't spend the president's time on safe races."
Vance said it is all about the power of a president to raise campaign money. Even when former President George W. Bush's ratings were low, Vance said, Republicans still wanted him to come to the state because of his fundraising prowess.
Democratic consultants scoff at Republican allegations Murray is desperate and say residents of the voter-rich Seattle metropolitan area still like Obama and his health care package.
"This is about jacking up the base in the 360-degree area you can see from the top of the Space Needle," said Ron Dotzauer, a longtime Democratic consultant. "If it was a sign of desperation, they would bring him in the last weekend of October and not August."
Political analysts say Republicans are going to go after Murray for her support of Obama's agenda whether he campaigns for her or not.
"The senator realizes Republicans will try to tie her to the president no matter what she does, so she might as well use the money he raises to defend herself," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the Rothenberg Report.