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Democrats shying away from Obama?

By Ed Hornick, CNN
President Obama spoke at a Democratic National Committee  finance event in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 2.
President Obama spoke at a Democratic National Committee finance event in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 2.
  • Expert: Low approval ratings deter some candidates from appearing with President Obama
  • White House says Obama will help Democratic candidates in any way possible
  • White House admits that Obama may not be the best campaigner in certain areas

Washington (CNN) -- While Democratic candidates have not openly said President Obama is not welcome on the campaign trail, actions speak louder than words.

"Obviously [Obama's] ratings aren't where he wants them to be and that's going to hurt him in some parts of the country," said Robert Erikson, a professor of political science at Columbia University. "So a Democratic candidate will then think that he or she can show their independence best by discreetly not being present [with the president.]"

On Monday, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who is running for his old job, was more than 100 miles away when the president was raising funds in Atlanta, Georgia. Barnes' campaign said, according to reports, that he wanted to honor previous obligations to attend campaign events.

The offices of Democratic Reps. Jim Marshall, John Barrow, John Lewis and Hank Johnson gave the Atlanta Journal-Constitution various reasons for not attending.

Recent polling indicates a majority of Georgia voters disapprove of Obama's presidency so far. His approval ratings nationwide, and his handling of the economy, have also dropped.

But it's not just in Georgia where Democratic candidates are failing to work the president into their schedules.

When Obama heads to Austin, Texas, next week, Bill White -- the Democratic gubernatorial candidate -- is expected to be miles away. White told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he has a busy schedule campaigning and is focused on letting Texans "know who I am." He means no disrespect to the president, White said.

Erikson, who studies elections and voting behavior, said if either Barnes or White is going to win, the strategy should focus on running towards the middle and as their own candidate, "not as a national Democrat."

"That doesn't mean they disavow their party or the president," he said. "They're going to highlight their own accomplishments and their own policies. That's smart politics."

It's a point backed up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Appearing on ABC's "This Week" Sunday, Pelosi said that Democratic members are "the best salespersons for their own districts," because they've been elected there and know their constituents.

But Obama has spent time on the trail helping some high-profile Democrats facing re-election trouble. In May, Obama campaigned with Sen. Barbara Boxer in her fight against Republican Carly Fiorina in California.

In July, Obama campaigned for Democrat Robin Carnahan running against Republican Rep. Roy Blunt in Missouri, and for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid running against Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle in Nevada.

But Erikson said the bulk of Democratic Party candidates are trying to send a message that says: " 'I'm an independent voice of the people. ... We don't know that guy over there: Obama.' "

For its part, the White House said Obama will help Democrats in any way possible to help keep his party in control of Congress.

"Rahm Emanuel [White House chief of staff] and his people are going to have a national message about the party's accomplishments, Obama's accomplishments and comparing their party to [George W.] Bush," Erikson said. "As to whether it sells or not, I don't know. It would be better to try to do that than not have a message at all."

One of those ways is to send former President Bill Clinton out on the trail.

Though even the administration admits that Obama may not necessarily be the best campaigner-in-chief in certain areas of the country, Clinton remains wildly popular among Democrats and independents -- especially in the South and swing districts.

"There's a lot of Bill Clinton nostalgia these days," Erikson said. "I think people retrospectively look back fondly on his administration ... particularly in the South where Bill, being a southerner himself, is more popular than the average Democratic figure."

"So I can see why Bill could be helpful in places like Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida, Georgia."

Read more about Clinton's campaigning

At the end of his own second presidential term, Clinton -- coming off the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings -- was not pushed by then-presidential hopeful Al Gore to campaign for him in the president's home state of Arkansas, political observers note.

Times were also tough for former President George W. Bush during the 2006 midterm elections -- as well as in 2008 -- amid high disapproval ratings for himself and his policies.

Though George W. Bush wasn't totally absent from the campaign trail in 2006 and 2008, his visits were geared toward conservative candidates in solidly Republican districts.

"When presidents are not that popular [at midterm election time], the congressional candidates often shy away," Erikson said.