Obama, Giannoulias, Palin, Kirk

At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday, President Obama drew applause when he mocked the conspiracy theory that he was born in Kenya. “It’s been quite a year since I’ve spoken here last—lots of ups, lots of downs—except for my approval ratings, which have just gone down. But that’s politics. Beside[s], I happen to know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.”

Birthers notwithstanding, Obama is facing embarrassing setbacks in both his actual birthplace state (Hawaii) and his adopted home (Illinois). In Hawaii, which is in the throes of a special election for a congressional seat, a new poll shows Republican Charles Djou running ahead in the May 22 contest—perhaps not surprisingly because the Honolulu city councilman’s two Democratic opponents are splitting the vote. 

Still, a Republican should not be ahead in a state that is the actual birthplace of the President—and is as blue as pre-Scott Brown Massachusetts. Hawaii, which has two representatives, has sent only two Republicans to Washington since it became a state in 1959. (For the Republicans, the gloating could be short-lived. If Djou wins, he’ll have to defend the seat in the general election this November.)

And according to the Politico’s Ben Smith, the White House and Democratic officials are not conceding the seat. They are working to promote one of the Democrats, Ed Case, whom they believe has the better chance of defeating Djou. Obama, whose approval rating is at 73 percent in the state, is making “robocalls” urging voters to vote Democratic.

The Hawaii poll was released at around the same time as a Rasmussen poll of the U.S. Senate battle here between Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias. The poll has Kirk up eight points (46 to 38) in a race that will impact Obama’s standing more than any other on the busy ballot this November.

During the bitter final days of the Massachusetts Senate race in January, there was much talk about whether Obama would put his prestige on the line by going to Boston and campaigning for Martha Coakley, who was trailing Scott Brown. The president went, and she lost. For a time it seemed that Obama had taken the lesson and would keep his distance from Giannoulias, his former basketball buddy.

Alexi got the message and said glumly that he would not meet the President for a town-hall meeting in Quincy, Illinois—part of Obama’s three-day swing through the Midwest last week. But then there was a change of tactics by the White House. Giannoulias picked up on it and flew to Quincy. The President hugged him and gave what reporters called a “shout out.”

Rasmussen tends to trend right in its polling, and there are six months for Kirk to mess up, although the Naval Reserve intelligence officer is a disciplined campaigner. 

Usually, anyway. During the primary, Kirk awkwardly tried to court Sarah Palin, who ignored him. But, like images of Florida’s Charlie Crist hugging Obama, a Palin embrace—even if it’s not literal or reciprocated—could damage Kirk’s support among moderates and independents.

Now that he’s in a general election, Kirk is turning coy. Palin is coming to Rosemont on May 12th as the star attraction at an Illinois Republican Party gathering. With Congress in session, Kirk’s spokeswoman says her boss will be hard at work in Washington. Convenient.

In a race that will likely tighten considerably before November, all these variables—Obama, Palin, and who knows what else—could mean the difference between victory and defeat.


Photography: (Obama) Esther Kang; (Giannoulias, Palin, Kirk) Chicago Tribune