President Barack Obama may end up playing a rather hands-off role in this fall's elections, a surprising turn for a political phenomenon who excited millions of voters just two years ago.
Recent elections have tarnished Obama's luster a bit, and Democratic candidates are likely to be selective in seeking his help.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania became the fourth Democrat in seven months to lose a high-profile race despite the president's active involvement. Specter's career-ending loss raises questions of whether Obama can transfer even small portions of the political charm that catapulted him to the White House.
Campaign strategists said Wednesday that many congressional Democrats seeking re-election this year will probably tap Obama to raise money, record ads for black radio stations and perhaps highlight a key issue or two. But some, and perhaps many, will not seek presidential visits, and they will emphasize their own roles on issues such as job-creation.
Obama remains generally popular, especially when compared to Congress or Republican leaders, said Jim Margolis, a Democratic consultant who worked on the president's 2008 campaign. However, he said, "what we've seen in many states is that his popularity doesn't necessarily translate into specific support for a particular candidate."
That's the case for all presidents, Margolis said, especially in midterm elections. "Where you get the pop is when you have someone at the top of the ticket" who can generate excitement and voter turnout for down-ballot candidates, he said.
That may be true. But it's still a letdown for fans who saw Obama as a charismatic president.
In previous months, Obama's endorsements and campaign appearances weren't enough to save then-Gov. Jon Corzine's re-election bid in New Jersey, Creigh Deeds' run for governor in Virginia or Martha Coakley's campaign in Massachusetts to keep the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat in Democratic hands.
In fairness, Deeds was an underdog all along, and Corzine brought many problems on himself. But the Coakley loss to Republican Scott Brown was excruciating.
Also embarrassing was Rep. Joe Sestak's victory over Specter in Tuesday's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. Sestak portrayed himself and his supporters as being more faithful to the Democratic Party than Specter and his backers, including the president, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and other high-ranking party officials.
Creating another headache for Obama, Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff in Arkansas' Democratic primary. Obama supports her bid for a third term, but he is not as closely associated with her campaign as he was with Specter's.
Obama's poor endorsement record thus far could hurt his legislative agenda if Democratic lawmakers decide they need some distance from him as they seek re-election in an anti-incumbent, anti-establishment climate. Conversely, it might embolden Republican lawmakers and candidates who oppose him.
"We're licking our chops at running against President Obama," said Rand Paul, a tea party favorite who won Kentucky's Republican primary for retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning's seat.
Other Republicans are less sure. They are still absorbing their party's loss in a special election to fill the Pennsylvania House seat long held by Democrat John Murtha in a district that Republican John McCain won against Obama.
Tuesday's loser, Republican Tim Burns, campaigned largely on national issues, whereas Democrat Mark Critz focused more on using a House seat to steer jobs to the district.
Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a speech Wednesday that Burns "ran against the president, as much as his opponent, and pledged to repeal health insurance reform. He lost by a significant margin."
GOP officials, however, noted that Critz opposed Obama's new health care law as well as gun control and abortion rights.
Scores of congressional Democrats must defend their votes this fall for the health legislation, a bank bailout bill, an economic stimulus and other issues under attack by conservatives and some centrists. Because such issues are largely associated with Obama, those Democrats may be wiser to accept whatever help the president can offer, and not bother with overt efforts to distance themselves from him, campaign advisers said.
In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is locked in a fierce re-election battle. Margolis, who works for Reid's campaign, said Obama has made two campaign appearances for the senator and "I'd not be surprised to see him again."
But in Nevada and all other states, Margolis said, voters will focus on the candidates and their issues, and Obama will be a minor factor at the most.
"I don't look at any race and see it as a referendum on the president," he said.