KANSAS CITY — With a handshake and hug, President Barack Obama embraced Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan on Thursday, proclaiming that she would be an independent voice if elected.
Obama appeared with Carnahan at a pair of Kansas City fundraisers that her campaign said would bring in at least $500,000. It marked the first time the president has campaigned with Carnahan, who was noticeably absent when Obama came to Missouri in March to raise money for Democratic Senate candidates.
Obama drew a fine line in his praise of Carnahan on Thursday as he defended his own policies on the economy, health care and energy. He portrayed Carnahan both as a loyal supporter and someone unafraid to take her own stand.
"We are moving in the right direction and I know that Robin Carnahan gets it — she's going to help us keep on moving in the right direction," Obama said during a fundraiser that drew about 750 people to the Folly Theater.
At another point in his half-hour speech, Obama praised Carnahan as being cut from the same Missouri mold of "no-nonsense, independent leaders" that produced President Harry Truman.
"She's not going there to represent me, although she's a great friend," Obama said. "She's going to Washington for only one reason, to represent one constituency, and that is the people of Missouri."
The fundraiser with Obama played right into Carnahan's opponent's campaign theme. Republican U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt has tried to cast her as a "rubber stamp" for Obama's agenda.
During a Thursday conference call with reporters, Blunt criticized Obama's economic policies as ineffective and repeated his desire to repeal and replace the new federal health care reform law. He said businesses are hesitant about hiring workers because of uncertainty over health care costs and Democrats' climate control legislation.
"I think Robin Carnahan had to make a decision that she didn't make earlier — that they need to raise money, they're behind in the fundraising, and it's worth the risk of having the president come in, even though that more closely associates her with his policies," Blunt said.
Carnahan had more than $2.8 million in her campaign fund at the end of March, compared with Blunt's $3.4 million. Updated campaign finance reports are to be released next week.
Obama appeared Thursday at a lunch where tickets cost $1,000 to $30,000 and a theater reception where the original $17-$99 ticket prices were discounted by more than half try to draw more people.
Although ahead financially, Blunt may have to spend more money than Carnahan in Missouri's Aug. 3 primaries. Republican state Sen. Chuck Purgason, who has been courting tea party activists, recently began airing radio ads for his U.S. Senate bid. Blunt began broadcasting TV ads this week. Carnahan's campaign has not begun airing ads.
Obama's appearance on Carnahan's behalf may appeal to fewer than half of Missouri's voters. In the 2008 presidential elections, Obama lost Missouri to Republican Sen. John McCain by 3,903 votes out of more than $2.9 million cast — the narrowest gap in the nation. Since his election, his popularity has dipped nationally.
But Obama still can be a big help for Democratic candidates, including Carnahan, said Dale Neuman, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
"To the extent she gets identified with him, any Democrat is going to get identified with him — that is a cross they are all going to have to bear," Neuman said. "But if she gets some money, and can do some things with that money and capitalize on her name recognition as it gets closer to the election, I see that as a plus."
Among those at the Carnahan's fundraiser was Vicki Asbury, 49, of Weatherby Lake, who paid $50 for a theater seat. Although she supports Obama — and particularly likes the health care overhaul — she doesn't believe Carnahan will win or lose based on Obama's popularity.
"I think Missouri voters are pretty independent," Asbury said. "Whether or not she's aligned with President Obama, I don't think is going to be that important."