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Obama political value unclear amid controversy

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BOSTON (AP) - President Barack Obama is putting his second term appeal to the test, seeking to boost Democrats in Boston and Miami on Wednesday both as a fundraiser and as a political drawing card, even while trailed by controversies over government prying.

Obama, in Massachusetts to rally voters before a nationally watched special Senate election later this month, rolled up his sleeves and tuned his voice to the campaign cadences of his own re-election run last year to pitch for Rep. Ed Markey, the Democratic hopeful in the race.

"I've gotta have folks in the United States Senate who are willing to stand up for working people just like I have," he said. Markey, he added, "will be my partner."

In headlining a rally for Markey, Obama is trying to fulfill a pledge to work harder to help elect Democrats than he did in years past. It's a risky proposition that raises questions about whether the president will be more asset or liability to his party in the coming election season.

Moreover, the president is carrying out his partisan duties while at the same time seeking bipartisan cooperation from Republicans on key issues, most notably an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

Obama tried to walk that fine line by declaring his willingness to work across party lines and arguing that he doesn't think "any single party has a monopoly on wisdom."

But he also blasted House Republicans, saying: "The problem is they think compromise is a dirty word."

Perhaps briefly forgetting that the rally was for Markey, the crowd at one point broke out in chants of "O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma."

But Obama caused some lighthearted strain with the crowd at the outset, eliciting some boos when he baited Boston Bruins fans by saying he wouldn't tout his hometown Chicago Blackhawks. "I don't want to make you all feel bad," he teased.

Obama was lated headed for Miami to raise money for Democrats at two high-dollar events.

Each stop lends Obama's proven ability to energize Democrats to the party's cause this year and next, with control of Congress and Obama's second-term agenda at stake. The visits also create opportunities for Republicans eager to link their Democratic opponents to the Obama administration's recent troubles, including controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service and government intelligence-gathering.

Even in Democrat-friendly Massachusetts, there are signs of modest declines in Obama's popularity as Republicans seize on the White House's struggles in the June 25 special election to replace John Kerry and in nascent campaigns across the nation.

"We hope that the president thinks he's going to be an asset, and goes all over the place," said Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman. "When you look at how the candidates are reacting, so far the early ones are running away fast."

Markey last week criticized the government's massive collection of personal phone and Internet records, even as Obama defended the practice. The disclosures about the National Security Agency surveillance came with the administration already facing questions over the IRS' improper targeting of conservative groups, the seizure of journalists' phone records and the handling of the attack in Libya last year that left four Americans dead.

After Air Force One landed, Obama was greeted at the foot of the stairs by Markey, Gov. Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino, who is on crutches after recent surgery. The group headed for the jam-packed Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe in Boston's South End to schmooze with diners and workers.

In Massachusetts, 60 percent of likely voters in the coming special election give the president favorable marks, according to a Suffolk University poll released this week. While a strong number, that's a decline from last month. Nationally, Obama's approval ratings are hovering at just under 50 percent.

"The numbers that you've seen dropping nationally are dropping here as well," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. "There are some Massachusetts voters who are beginning to question the administration on some of these issues."

At a minimum, the shift complicates the president's promise to go all out for the party in the 2014 elections, mindful that sending more Democrats to Congress could be the difference between success and failure for key aspects of his agenda such as immigration, climate change and a budget deal. Republicans control the House, and the Democrats' Senate majority could be in jeopardy.

Democratic officials say Obama has agreed to headline at least 20 party fundraisers in and out of Washington. That's in addition to candidate-specific events like Wednesday's rally in Massachusetts. The aggressive schedule has seen Obama campaign so far this year in California, Texas, Illinois, New York and Georgia. He raised $3.25 million for House Democrats on a single day in April in San Francisco.

The president continues the effort later Wednesday with a Miami fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.

But Obama probably won't attend many rallies in places like Louisiana, Arkansas and West Virginia, where Democrats are defending Senate seats in conservative-friendly territory.

"Every candidate has to make their own decision," said David Plouffe, who ran Obama's 2008 campaign. "You don't force yourself on a campaign. If they want the help, they're going to ask."

Plouffe said the White House understands that Democrats in deep-red states will need to distance themselves publicly from Obama on some issues. But even in those states, they may want to take advantage of Obama's vaunted political operation.

"We have a lot of volunteers in every state of the country," Plouffe said. "Those volunteers are still an underappreciated secret weapon in terms of how we won."

The aggressive pace of Obama's efforts this year is a marked shift for a president criticized for doing too little to help his party win elections during his first four years in office.

"There's a big difference in this race," Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday at a fundraiser for Markey, urging Democrats not to take the special election for granted. "Barack Obama's not at the head of the ticket. And that means those legions of African-Americans and Latinos are not automatically going to come out."

Democratic operatives involved with 2013 elections in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia privately concede that the White House's struggles have been a distraction but still welcomed White House assistance - particularly with fundraising.

"President Obama has won Virginia twice, has a unique ability to express to voters the stakes of this election, and we'd certainly want him to campaign with us," McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said.

Other Democrats were not so sure.

The pro-Republican group America Rising PAC last week distributed a video of Arizona Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick repeatedly refusing to say whether she would campaign with Obama.

"There's a lot of frustration with the administration now," Kirkpatrick said in a local television interview.

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