Obama administration touring competitive rural districts

The White House bills it as a “listening tour,” a chance for President Obama’s Cabinet to get out of Washington and hear what’s on the minds of rural voters around the country.

En route, the White House is making sure it reaches voters in crucial swing districts.

The itinerary laid out by the White House for its just-announced “Rural Tour” includes several politically competitive districts, which would give the Obama administration a chance to make its case to people who voted Republican in past congressional races but are now represented by Democrats up for reelection in 2010.

As part of the tour, 10 Cabinet secretaries are being dispatched to nine states over the summer. Locations include several districts that Republicans are targeting in next year’s midterm elections.


The tour is one of several examples of administration officials crisscrossing the country to tout Obama’s agenda and foster goodwill.

First Lady Michelle Obama is now part of the act. On Monday, she visited a community health center in Washington, D.C., to announce that $850 million in stimulus money will go to various health clinics.

The tour opened Wednesday in northwestern Pennsylvania, in a district represented by Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, a Democrat who ousted a longtime Republican in the 2008 election.

Vice President Joe Biden made an appearance, announcing that $4 billion in federal stimulus money would be made available nationwide to help bring broadband service to areas that lack coverage.

In an interview afterward, Dahlkemper said that stimulus funds could be an important tool in winning over rural voters, showing them that the federal government is pumping resources into their regions.

The stimulus money “is helping rural areas, which tend to lean politically more to the right,” Dahlkemper said.

The administration’s roadshow comes as support for some of the president’s policies is softening. Although Obama still enjoys strong personal approval ratings, more people are worried about the deficit and are skeptical that the $787-billion stimulus will improve economic conditions. Another concern for the president is that the unemployment rate is expected to worsen; Obama has predicted it will top 10%.

In this climate, deploying Cabinet members throughout the country serves important political purposes, some Democratic strategists said.


Appearing in swing districts gives political cover to Democratic members who may be worried that they risk a conservative voter backlash if they support Obama’s healthcare and global warming plans. The visits also could boost the reelection prospects of potentially vulnerable Democrats.

The locations picked for the tour were “not an accident at all,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran of Democratic presidential primary campaigns. “They’re sending them to districts that are swing districts.”

White House spokesman Shin Inouye said the itinerary was not shaped by political considerations.

“We choose locations that represent broad geographical diversity for rural America and themes that are appropriate for each location,” Inouye said.


One administration official said that a third of the states chosen for the tour were won by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in last year’s presidential race -- proof, the official said, that the White House was not excluding red states that may be cool to Obama’s message.

On July 18, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will appear in Ringgold, Va., to talk about plans for renewable energy. Ringgold is part of a southern Virginia district represented by Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello, who narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Virgil H. Goode Jr. last year.

Republicans are targeting Perriello for defeat in 2010. On Monday, the National Republican Congressional Committee announced it was mounting an advertising blitz against more than a dozen Democrats, including Perriello, who voted for the Obama-backed energy bill meant to curb global warming.

Told of the visit to Perriello’s district, Ken Spain, a spokesman for the Republican campaign committee, said: “The president is clearly engaged in damage control. Both he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked a number of Democrats to walk off a cliff.”


On Aug. 16, Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will stop in Zanesville, Ohio, in a district represented by Democratic Rep. Zack Space. Space won the seat in 2006, ending 12 years of Republican control.

The GOP is hoping to recapture the seat next year. The National Republican Congressional Committee included Space in the ad campaign that also targets Perriello.

The day after the Ohio visit, Vilsack and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are to appear in a North Carolina district held by freshman Democrat Larry Kissell. In 2008, Kissell defeated a Republican who had first been elected 10 years earlier.