When an unpopular president comes to town, politicians have a choice: get the good suit pressed and polish the dress shoes — or slip on a pair of sneakers and run as far away as possible.
That's the dilemma presented by President Barack Obama's visit on Friday, when he and first lady Michelle Obama will visit a South Florida high school to talk about education.
One thing is undisputed: Obama's popularity has suffered in the 16 months since he won Florida and a second term as president. In December 2012, he was viewed positively by Floridians polled by Quinnipiac University, with his approval 12 points higher than his disapproval. By late January 2014, disapproval was 11 points higher than approval.
Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, of Lighthouse Point, said the best political choice for Democrats is to stay away from Obama.
"They don't want to be anywhere near the president publicly, because they don't want those pictures and they don't want those news reports because the president is unpopular and growing more unpopular," LeMieux said. "The only thing they want from the president is the ability to raise money. What their opponents are going to do is tether them to the unpopular president."
LeMieux is a Republican, so his advice to Democrats isn't exactly unbiased. But he said the same calculation gets made by all politicians regardless of which party controls the White House.
The political calculus for Democrats is more complicated than LeMieux's black-and-white analysis. Whether Obama is politically dangerous depends on the Democrat, and especially the nature of the Democrat's district, said Daniel Smith, a political science professor who teaches in the University of Florida's political campaigning program.
It's tricky for people like freshman U.S. Reps. Joe Garcia, a Miami-Dade Democrat, and Patrick Murphy, a Democrat who represents Martin, St. Lucie and northern Palm Beach counties. Both represent districts that could go either way in November's election, and the big independent national ratings consider them "toss ups" that just slightly Democratic.
And it's no accident that in Tuesday's hotly contested special congressional election in the St. Petersburg area, Obama isn't being called on by Democrat Alex Sink's campaign. Instead, former President Bill Clinton's voice is the one on automated telephone calls touting Sink over Republican David Jolly. Republicans are trying to damage Sink by reminding voters of Obamacare.
Another indication of presidential impact: Garcia supporters from the House Majority PAC are running an ad in which the Democratic congressman is shown being critical of Obamacare.
Garcia said earlier this week he'd be happy to appear alongside Obama "if our schedule allows. You know the president's schedule, he's a last-minute scheduler, [and] we've got a pretty ample agenda."
Garcia said appearing with Obama wouldn't hurt any Democrat. "I love our president. I think a majority of our country loves our president, and he's the president of all Americans," he said in a brief interview on Monday.
The White House said Wednesday night that the president and first lady will at Coral Reef High School in Garcia's district. Thursday afternoon, a Garcia spokeswoman said her boss would attend the event.
Broward and Palm Beach county U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson, who are elected from "very safe" Democratic districts, wouldn't be hurt by an association with Obama, Smith said. Wasserman Schultz, who is Obama's hand-picked chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, won't be at his Friday event, a spokeswoman said.
Because so many of Florida's congressional seats are safe for either the Republican or Democratic candidates, Smith said the state's politicians aren't "running away, having conflicting obligations or prior engagements" as often as other states where some Democrats are actively distancing themselves from Obama.
Florida was the location for a presidential dissing much-noticed in the political world. In 2006, when Charlie Crist was the Republican attorney general, LeMieux orchestrated his successful campaign for governor, prompting Crist to later dub him the "maestro."
Then-President George W. Bush visited Pensacola the day before the election — at a time when the Quinnipiac Poll showed his disapproval among Florida voters was 22 points higher than approval.
But Republican nominee for governor Crist was nowhere near Bush that day. He campaigned instead in eight other cities. "The thinking was it was better to have him in Boca Raton and in some key areas that day than it was to have him in Pensacola," said LeMieux, who is now board chairman at the Gunster law firm.
In his book, "The Party's Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat," released last month, Crist wrote that he wasn't avoiding Bush, insisting that he couldn't break a previously scheduled commitment, even for a presidential visit.
Crist said he was on the receiving end of a telephone tongue-lashing from Bush's top political strategist, Karl Rove. By Crist's published account, Rove said ducking Bush was "chicken" — plus another word for excrement.
Crist left the Republican Party by 2012 and was a tireless campaigner for Obama's re-election. And now that he's a Democrat running for the nomination to seek his old job, Republicans are using his support for Obama as a bludgeon to hurt him with voters. Crist isn't backing away, and a spokesman said the candidate would be at Friday's event with the president.
For now, Smith said Obama helps Crist because the former Republican needs to shore up his credentials with Democratic primary voters.
Besides, the two men hugged in 2009 when Obama visited Florida to tout his economic stimulus program; the embrace crystallized many Republicans' disenchantment with Crist and contributed to his departure from the party.
"Another photo op with President Obama doesn't hurt him," Smith said. "He's already got the hug, so it's hard to get more intimate with the president."
Republicans offer some pre-visit criticism of Obama at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics
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