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Much for president to enjoy on holiday in ‘Obama land’

As vacation spots go, Hawaii is hard to beat for the Obama family’s annual holiday break. Far from the cold of Washington, the president already has enjoyed two rounds of golf and a trip to the beach with his daughters.

But this year’s trip carries an added political perk for a president looking to build on the “season of progress” he touted last week as the lame-duck Congress wrapped up: Hawaii seemed immune from the “shellacking” that felled Democrats across the country in the midterm election.

The Aloha State not only replaced a Republican governor with a Democrat, it also returned to the president’s party a congressional seat the GOP had snared earlier in a special election.

And unlike the president’s other home state of Illinois, where a Republican captured his former seat in the Senate and preelection polls showed President Obama’s approval ratings in negative territory, he remains immensely popular in Hawaii.

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“This is definitely Obama land,” said former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. “If the president is looking to get away from some of those who beg to differ with his policies, there’s no better place for him to go than here.”

Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a feisty 72-year-old former congressman who has known Obama since infancy, was elected by a 17-percentage-point margin over the sitting lieutenant governor, Duke Aiona. Abercrombie carried 50 of 51 state legislative districts despite being outspent, including a nearly $2 million campaign investment by the national Republican Governors Assn.

While conservatives were resurgent elsewhere, one local columnist described Abercrombie as the most liberal Democrat the state had ever elected governor. Abercrombie dismissed the label, attributing his victory more to a philosophy that inspired Obama’s 2008 campaign.

“I started my campaign with the words ‘hope’ and ‘change.’ And it was a conscious and public reference to my support for the president, and the support of the people who were backing me for the president,” Abercrombie said in an interview in his office last week. “We wanted to bring the energy and the commitment that we made in 2008 at the national election level to the local level.”

Some Democrats on the mainland distanced themselves from Obama, and even in gubernatorial races, Republicans in key states sought to link their Democratic foes to the president.

In Hawaii, however, Obama recorded television ads for Abercrombie and Colleen Hanabusa, who defeated Republican Charles Djou to reclaim the congressional seat Abercrombie had relinquished to run for governor.

Aiona said his campaign’s polling showed a close gubernatorial race until the airing of Abercrombie’s Obama ad.

“His popularity in Hawaii was fairly strong,” Aiona said. “When you have someone of that stature related to you, you have an affinity for that person.”

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The Democratic Governors Assn. also attacked Aiona in an ad for declaring in a speech to Republican donors that a victory for him in Obama’s home state would be a “knockout punch.”

Island politicos point out that the state, removed as it is by thousands of miles of ocean, sometimes misses the political waves rolling across the mainland.

The Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee, John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, was an electoral casualty of the anti-spending, anti-government “tea party” activism that propelled the GOP’s gains. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, chose to not even seek reelection.

But in Hawaii, where the tea party movement has had little traction, Democratic Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye won reelection with 75% of the vote.

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While acknowledging Hawaii has traditionally been a Democratic state, officials also say the president could learn some lessons from the local party as he looks to recast his presidency for the second half of his term and the 2012 campaign.

Hannemann, a centrist who lost to Abercrombie in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, suggests the president would do well to reflect the state’s “aloha spirit.”

“We have our differences, but we live basically in harmony,” Hannemann said. “We’ve managed to take different backgrounds and cultures and somehow reach consensus. … And I think the president can take that lesson every time he comes here — how different people, different religions, different backgrounds somehow get along.”

Seeking consensus doesn’t mean rolling over, Abercrombie said. The governor is among those calling for a more combative style from Obama, saying the president needs to resurrect Harry Truman’s “give them hell” approach.

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Obama perhaps signaled he had adopted an approach of compromising without collapsing in the lame-duck session.

Though he cut a deal with Republicans that extended George W. Bush-era tax cuts for two years, even cuts he had campaigned to end, the White House held firm to win Senate ratification of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia and a congressional repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gays from serving openly.

“He’s under siege,” Abercrombie said. “All they’re doing is backing up a couple steps to make another run at him.”

michael.memoli@latimes.com


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