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What Would the White House Consider a Success on Tuesday?

If you want to understand what kind of outcome the White House would consider worth celebrating on Tuesday night in spite of inevitable GOP gains across the map, look no further than President Obama’s four-city trip this weekend, meant to help close the enthusiasm gap and put the Democrats ahead in four key races across the East and Midwest. Obama’s choices — the Senate races in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Connecticut and the governor’s race in Ohio — reflect a carefully crafted balance between idealism and realism, as the White House selected close races (with the exception of Connecticut) in places where Obama’s influence on turnout in the big cities could still make a difference.

In Chicago and Philadelphia, Obama’s trips were intended to boost turnout in the Democratic-leaning cities to tip the scales for Senate candidates Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) and Alexi Giannoulias (D). While Obama’s approval rating has stubbornly remained below fifty percent in both states, he enjoyed a warm welcome in the cities, especially his hometown:

He traded high-dollar fund-raisers for free rallies; in his hometown of Chicago on Saturday night, 35,000 turned out to see him in an outdoor park. He doffed his tie and shouted himself hoarse, tweaking his standard stump speech — the one with the laugh lines about Republicans “drinking a Slurpee” and driving the economy “into a ditch” — into a more affirmative, upbeat vision of why voters should elect Democrats, and not just reject Republicans. He suffered hecklers. He persevered. [...]

Harking back to his own election, he conceded that times have changed.

“Some of the excitement of Inauguration Day — you know, Beyoncé was singing and Bono was up there and everybody was feeling good — I know that good feeling starts slipping away,” he said Saturday night in Chicago. The crowd interrupted him, shouting, “Nooooo!”

And if the president’s trip to Bridgeport, Conn., represented something of a conservative play, his trip to Cleveland took on special significance because it represented a proxy battle with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), as well as one of the greatest potential Democratic upsets of the election season.

After trailing by double digits for months, Gov. Ted Strickland (D) is now locked in a virtual tie with former Rep. John Kasich (R) in his battle for re-election. But Boehner, too, recognized both the practical and symbolic nature of the contest, and he did everything he could to counter the president’s efforts this weekend:

For weeks, the White House has put more emphasis on Ohio than nearly any other state, but over the weekend, signs of a Republican revival were underscored by Mr. Boehner’s rare public appearances in his own state. He zipped from district to district as he worked to expand the Republican advantages in the House and deliver a counterargument to the president.

“They have been coming here for months? Why? You might think it’s to help Ted Strickland. What he is really coming for is to help himself,” Mr. Boehner said on Sunday evening at his final stop, in Chillicothe. “He knows that in 2012 if he doesn’t have Ted Strickland in office, his re-election chances are seriously damaged.

“So if you want to send President Obama a message about spending and about takeovers and bailouts and all the nonsense,” Mr. Boehner added, “go out there on Tuesday and vote for John Kasich.”

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