Facing McMahon’s millions, Blumenthal embraces Obama

Whether it’s for love or money, Richard Blumenthal is embracing Barack Obama at a time when the president’s approval rating sits at an all-time low in Connecticut.

Obama is headlining a $1,000-a-ticket fundraiser for Blumenthal, a Democratic U.S. Senate nominee trying to hold off the best-financed candidate in state history, Republican Linda McMahon.

No public rallies are planned, but the White House and Blumenthal’s campaign says that a video feed will be available of Obama’s remarks at the event in Stamford on Thursday. In other words, images of Obama and Blumenthal are likely to be on the evening news, something Democrats elsewhere are avoiding.

“Dick is looking forward to welcoming the president to Connecticut and is honored to have his support,” said Ty Matsdorf, a campaign aide.

With public polling showing a tight race, the national party is sending more help: Today, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, will campaign with Blumenthal in Manchester and host a $500-a-ticket fundraiser at the Hartford Club.

The presidential visit comes as Blumenthal is saying nice things about an element of Obama’s new stimulus plan, a research-and-development tax credit that complements Blumenthal’s effort to promote home-grown manufacturing.

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, top Democrats still see an Obama appearance as an asset in Connecticut, despite an approval rating that dropped to 50 percent in July, his lowest since taking office.

“I think it’s still a plus, not the plus it would have been a year or two ago, but it’s still a plus,” said George Jepsen, a former Democratic state chairman.

“I know there is talk nationwide that it’s not a good idea,” said Nancy DiNardo, the present state chairwoman. “I believe in Connecticut it is not a problem.”

Still, based on the details available Thursday, the Obama visit will not be used as a rallying point for the state’s dominant party. The rest of the statewide ticket has not been invited.

And with Congress back in session next week, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, who represents Stamford, might not be present, either, though his campaign says he is hardly ducking Obama.

“Jim is on record as saying the president is always welcome in Fairfield County,” said Elizabeth Kerr, a spokeswoman for the Himes campaign.

Two years ago, Himes emphasized an endorsement by Obama, displaying a poster size photo of him and Obama outside polling places in Bridgeport.

U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, said he has no doubt it is still good politics in Connecticut for Himes or other Democrats to be seen arm in arm with the president.

“The reason is pretty clear. We want turn out in Stamford, Norwalk, Bridgeport. We want to make sure that vote comes out,” Larson said. “There is no mystery to the fact of the great turnout and the great surge [in 2008] because of Barack Obama.”

Jepsen, who once represented Stamford in the state Senate and is the Democratic nominee to succeed Blumenthal as attorney general, said he would gladly appear with Obama.

But Jepsen and a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dan Malloy, the former Stamford mayor, said they have not been invited, an indication the visit is about money, not message.

In addition to the fundraiser for Blumenthal, Obama also is hosting a fundraiser at a Greenwich estate for the Democratic National Committee.

Some Democrats say privately that Blumenthal cannot afford to turn down the infusion of cash that only a president can bring a campaign.

McMahon, his self-financed Republican opponent, so far has put $24 million into her campaign, more money than any candidate in state history, and has pledged to spend up to $50 million. Her campaign already is using the planned visit against Blumenthal.

Her spokesman, Ed Patru, said Blumenthal’s embrace of Obama will further undercut his claim that he is not a Washington insider.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Patru said.

Two years ago, it was Republicans who had mixed feelings about campaigning with an unpopular President George W. Bush. Some did have it both ways, accepting Bush’s financial help, while keeping their distance.

In Connecticut, Bush visited to help David Cappiello raise money for his challenge of U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District. The fundraiser was held at the estate of Henry Kissinger — without media access.

Cappiello is now McMahon’s campaign manager.

John F. Droney, a former Democratic state chairman, said he would be more comfortable if Blumenthal followed a similar strategy. His fear is a video clip of Obama and Blumenthal that McMahon can use against the Democrat, especially if Obama’s popularity continues to drop.

“I could be wrong,” Droney said. “In fact, I hope I’m wrong.”