By SHANNON McCAFFREY
Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA - Georgia's most prominent Democrat will be nowhere near Barack Obama when the president comes to Atlanta on Monday.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes' campaign said it was simply a matter of conflicting schedules as Barnes tries to catch the attention of voters more than 100 miles away in southern Georgia and ultimately win his old job back.
It's a tough year for Democrats, who control both the U.S. Senate and House, with voters frustrated by the sluggish economy and high unemployment. And Georgia is a GOP stronghold carried by Republican John McCain in 2008. Political experts say that means Barnes needs to distance himself from national Democrats - and Obama - as much as possible if he's to win in November.
"Among white independent voters in Georgia - which Barnes needs - he (Obama) is pretty unpopular," Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz said. "Barnes needs to stay away."
Barnes' campaign manager, Chris Carpenter, said he had already scheduled the campaign trips elsewhere when he learned of Obama's visit and decided to keep those commitments.
"I had to make a difficult decision on how to best utilize Gov. Barnes' time and travel," Carpenter said.
But the choice may not have been all that difficult.
Obama has seen his approval ratings decline recently. An AP-GfK poll conducted in June had Obama's national approval rating at 50 percent.
And he's even more unpopular in Georgia: A poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. in July had Obama with a 37 percent approval rating in the state. Fifty percent of those surveyed disapproved of Obama's performance.
Obama has seen his support from independent voters who helped boost him to a White House win in 2008 fade. Barnes will need to appeal to those very voters in a state where the GOP controls both chambers of the Legislature and both U.S. Senate seats - and where Republican Sonny Perdue snatched the governor's mansion from Barnes in 2002.
Furthermore, a Democrat hasn't won an open statewide seat in Georgia since Barnes was elected governor in 1998. And the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia was Bill Clinton in 1992.
Barnes has already been carefully putting distance between himself and the White House.
He has said he'd sign an Arizona-style immigration law as long as it contained safeguards against racial profiling. The Obama administration is suing Arizona to block the law, which gives local authorities more power to go after illegal immigrants. A federal judge has put parts of the law on hold.
Barnes has also said while there are pieces of the Obama-backed health care law he likes - like insurance coverage for preexisting conditions - there are others he thinks goes too far.
Republicans have already been linking Barnes to the Obama administration. An appearance with the president could give the GOP a desirable campaign prop: a photo of the two together that could be splashed on mailers and in television ads.
State Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Everhart accused Barnes of "hiding out on the other side of the state Monday."
She linked the rising narrational deficit under Obama to pricey spending proposals Barnes is pushing in his gubernatorial bid.
Even Perdue got in a dig. His spokesman, Bert Brantley, said the Republican governor had juggled his schedule so that he could meet Obama's plane when it landed. Term limits prevent Perdue from seeking a third term.
"Even if you disagree with his policies, we think its important to respect the office of the president and welcome him to Georgia," Brantley said.
The trip Monday will be Obama's first to Atlanta since being elected president. He visited Savannah in March. He's set to address the Disabled American Veterans convention and will then headline a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
Carpenter said Barnes wasn't invited to the president's official event with the veterans.