Obama visit on campaign trail could be mixed blessing for Sen. Harry Reid

President Barack Obama travels to Nevada on Thursday to help Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) re-election campaign, but political experts see the visit as a mixed blessing. 

Obama helped the Nevada Democratic Party register tens of thousands of additional voters in 2008. He also carried the state over GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) by 12 percentage points.

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“In this election, Obama can be helpful in making sure the Democratic base is aware of the importance of having Reid available back in Washington,” said Dan Hart, a Democratic political consultant based in Nevada.

Hart said Democratic Party registration soared in 2008, and many of the voters who signed up were new to the political process.

“A good chunk of the new people were Obama voters,” he said. “If Obama can appeal to those people he appealed to a few years ago, that helps.”

Republicans outnumbered Democrats in Nevada as recently as November of 2006, according to the Nevada Secretary of State’s office. After the 2008 presidential campaign, there were 544,000 active Democratic voters compared to 440,000 active Republicans.

The advantage has since narrowed. In June, state reports showed 457,000 active Democrats and 399,000 Republicans.

This has led some political experts to conclude turning out Democratic voters is the key to Reid winning re-election and a visit from Obama is seen as a good way to excite the base.

Ted Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, doesn’t think Reid will have much success persuading voters leaning toward Sharron Angle, his GOP opponent. Likewise, he said he doesn’t think Angle will have much success winning over Democratic-leaning independents.

“The key is turnout, who can identify the people and get them to the polls,” Jelen said. “Most of the national polls suggest Republicans have an edge in voter enthusiasm.

“What Harry Reid is counting on is trying to whip up some enthusiasm with the base Democratic voters,” he said.

Obama is scheduled to arrive at 5 p.m. Thursday in Las Vegas and to attend a political rally with Reid at the Aria resort in CityCenter. The president will also attend a private fundraiser with Reid that will draw more than 3,000 donors. Reid’s campaign and the state party will split the proceeds.

Obama will appear with Reid again Friday morning at a public speech about jobs and the economy at the UNLV Student Union. The president is scheduled to leave the state immediately after the speech.

Jon Ralston, a prominent analyst of Nevada politics, however, warned that Obama’s visit might hurt Reid with independent voters.

“Obama think he owes it to Reid to try to save him,” said Ralston. “The question is whether [the visit] helps or hurts him.”

“Reid’s main strategy is to win independent voters,  and independent voters are not thrilled with Obama,” Ralston said.

Obama’s visit will be his third to Nevada in the 2010 election cycle. The president last visited the state in February to hold a town hall meeting with Reid in Henderson and attend a major fundraiser in Las Vegas for the Democratic National Committee.

A Mason-Dixon poll published a few days later showed that only 7 percent of voters said they were more likely to vote for Reid because of the visit while 17 percent said they were less likely to back the incumbent.

“Clearly, there’s a trade off,” said Jelen of UNLV.

But Jelen argues that turning out Democratic voters is more important than winning over independents.

“The thing about independent voters in an off-year election is that they’re not that likely to vote,” Jelen said.

Jelen believes Reid will win more Democratic votes than he will lose independent votes because of Obama’s visit.

 “In a close election, it’s a risk worth taking,” he said.

A Democrat close to Reid’s campaign said the fundraiser scheduled for Thursday evening is over capacity, a sign Obama remains very popular among Democratic voters.

 The Democratic source said independent voters are also excited and noted that the effort to build CityCenter, the site of the Obama rally, stayed on track because of Reid’s help in Washington.

Bob Fulkerson, the state director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said liberals have become more enthusiastic about Reid’s re-election campaign but still have a way to go.

“I think it’s on the way to getting energized,” Fulkerson said. “It’s not where it needs to be.”

Fulkerson thinks Obama will help Reid’s image among liberals.

“They’re right that Obama is going to help that,” he said. “I think Obama will be a great vote getter. He’s very popular among Democrats and the progressive base.”

But Fulkerson said the best way to energize Democratic voters in the state is to pass tough Wall Street reform legislation and demonstrate progress on immigration and energy reform.

“Nothing motivates the base like success, that’s what we need,” he said.

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