published Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Democrats keep away from the president


by Chris Carroll
Production crews prepare on the floor at the Democratic National Convention inside Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday.
Production crews prepare on the floor at the Democratic National Convention inside Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

When asked to describe a particular presidential nominee, Tennessee Democratic congressional candidates say he's "very unpopular," "a flip-flopper" and someone who "doesn't poll very well."

They're not talking about Mitt Romney.

Attitudes toward President Barack Obama are favorable among the Volunteer State's pair of Democratic incumbents in the U.S. House, longtime congressmen who represent the state's urban centers of Memphis and Nashville.

But as Democrats head to Charlotte, N.C., for their national convention beginning Tuesday, most of Tennessee's Democratic congressional challengers aren't singing "Hail to the Chief" or clamoring for a second term. Instead, they're struggling to sell moderate and liberal views to increasingly conservative districts with little love for Obama's policies.

Dr. Mary Headrick, the Maynardville, Tenn., Democrat up against U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in November, said she'll vote for the president. But when it comes to policy, she said she "can't win as an Obama lookalike" in Tennessee's 3rd District, which includes Hamilton County.

"If I had 30 hours in the day instead of 24," Headrick said, "I could overcome the propaganda against Obama. But I don't."

Headrick and other Tennessee Democrats downplay or don't mention the president on their campaign websites. Some are reluctant to say whether they'll even vote for Obama.

"Can I keep that to myself?" asked Alan Woodruff, an attorney challenging U.S. Rep. Phil Roe in upper East Tennessee. "I will probably vote for Obama. Well, I will vote for him. Yeah."

Timothy Dixon, a Democrat running against U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher in Tennessee's 8th District, would not disclose his presidential choice. He also said he didn't know if he would have voted for Obama's landmark legislative achievement -- an overhaul of the nation's health insurance system.

"I was disappointed with the way it was handled through the Congress," Dixon said. "Nobody likes having things jammed down their throat."

Troy Goodale, a Tusculum College political science professor challenging longtime U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan in the Knoxville area, said he shies away from Obama during speeches.

"Children on their parents' plan until they're 26; the end of discrimination based on pre-existing conditions -- standalone, people love those," he said. "But it goes down the toilet when you say, 'What do you think about Obamacare?'

"He's very unpopular in Tennessee," Goodale added. "He's not an asset."

Meanwhile, Mark Clayton, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, is running against first-term U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor. Clayton, a Nashville resident, said he won't vote for Romney "and maybe not Obama," labeling the president "a flip-flopper" for reversing a prior stand against gay marriage.

Clayton is the vice president of Public Advocate of the United States, an anti-gay conservative group, and the Tennessee Democratic Party quickly disavowed him after he won last month's Democratic primary.

He said he supports Obama's work on foreclosures and foreign policy, but in the same breath he blasted the state party for "making me a one-issue candidate."

Still, Clayton said, "Obama supporting gay marriage is a deal-breaker for a lot of my supporters. It's a deal-breaker for my conscience."

Candidates and incumbents overwhelmingly said they're not voting for Clayton.

"People have told me he's a bigger liability than Obama," Goodale said.

•••

Republican presidential nominee and Arizona Sen. John McCain beat Obama by 57 percent to 42 percent in Tennessee in 2008, and experts predict a similar Romney win here in November. Democratic challengers aren't thrilled.

Seen among party insiders as the likeliest Democrat to pick off a House seat from Tennessee Republicans, state Sen. Eric Stewart recently illustrated the phenomenon.

In an Aug. 17 news release, Tennessee Republican Party Executive Director Adam Nickas criticized Stewart for evading "the simplest questions." Days earlier, Stewart's 4th District GOP opponent, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, rejected Stewart's pleas to debate partly because he said he didn't know Stewart's presidential preference.

When the Chattanooga Times Free Press and other media outlets attempted to get the answer, Stewart wouldn't bite, adding that DesJarlais and others could find out if the congressman agreed to debate.

Stewart eventually said he will vote for Obama. But an interview last week indicated he isn't wild about him.

"There are going to be times that I would support Gov. Romney if he's president," he said. "There's going to be times I support President Obama if he remains president. To me, the question ought to be, 'Are you willing to work with whoever's there?' I am."

Stewart said he generally supports the president's fight to fix Medicare, slash student loan rates and preserve Social Security. But he couldn't identify a single Romney policy he likes.

"It's no secret that the president doesn't poll very well in the 4th District," he said. "I think we all know that."

•••

U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen and Jim Cooper see things differently. Veterans of the House chamber, they blame Senate Republicans for obstructionism and feel that criticism of Obama is overheated and premature.

Plus, Cooper said, Tennessee isn't terribly fond of Romney, noting the former Massachusetts governor lost 92 of 95 counties in the state's Republican presidential primary in March.

Both congressmen recognize the political benefits of touting Obama back home.

"There's a lot of people in my district who are proud of the fact that we've got an African-American president," said Cohen, who represents Memphis. "My constituents need government services, need help with their health care."

Cooper hails from the Nashville area and pointed out that presidents Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton — now viewed favorably in Democratic circles — were vilified as presidents and, in the case of Clinton, even impeached by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

But he dismissed any comparison between them and Obama.

"President Obama doesn't schmooze like Clinton, but that doesn't mean he's a bad president," Cooper said. "I think that is a plus for the president, not a minus. The folks who live and breathe and eat and sleep politics are not normal."

But the Obama hex may extend statewide. Middle Tennessee's 6th Congressional District doesn't even have a Democrat on the ballot, and Cohen said Stewart is the only challenger with a chance of unseating a Republican.

"I don't think it's a very strong shot," Cohen said, adding that the state Legislature redistricted the state this year "for the long run to elect Republicans" to Congress.

Cooper dismissed the long-term pessimism.

"The pendulum will swing again," he said. "Republicans controlled a lot in Tennessee in the early 1970s, and then this thing called Watergate happened."

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