President Barack Obama robustly defended Colorado's junior senator on Thursday, aiming to protect every Democratic seat he can at a time when voters "are fed up."
"We do not quit," Obama said in aligning himself ever closer with Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, still new on the Senate scene and now fighting a challenge in his own party.
Obama's message was intended not just for those inside Denver's Fillmore Auditorium or throughout the state. He aimed to persuade people listening nationwide that Democrats are more interested in fixing daily problems than engaging in petty squabbling.
"Michael and I, we don't have time for that nonsense," Obama said in his latest distancing from Washington's political culture. "We're going to keep doing everything in our power to keep turning this economy around."
Obama's direct involvement — even in Democratic-vs.-Democratic primary fights — comes as the Democrats' command of the Senate grows shakier, jeopardizing the president's agenda. He was heading later Thursday to Las Vegas to bolster Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a private, million-dollar fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee. The Nevada lawmaker is a major target for Republicans in November.
Obama will try to help all year in targeted states he carried in 2008, like Colorado and Nevada, as the margins in Congress will shape his own fortunes on key legislation. But Republicans, seizing on public impatience with a too-slow-to-recover economy, see huge opportunity to win back seats.
The president's trip has a public agenda too — a Las Vegas town hall on the economy on Friday and an Obama speech to the business leaders of that city, who feel he keeps slamming their town. But the political element is a big driver of a visit that will mostly be at taxpayer expense.
Democrats took a huge hit when Republican Scott Brown won a Senate seat in Massachusetts last month, dropping their effective majority to 59 votes, one shy of the number they need to overcome Republican delay maneuvers on bills. Retirements are taking a toll too, including the news just this week that Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh will not seek re-election.
"Every seat at this point is of extreme importance," said Thomas Whalen, a Boston University professor who studies American politics. "I think the president is trying to go and rally his troops to take a political stand. They just seem to be in disarray and probably overreacting. With 59 votes, you'd think it is the end of the world."
The anti-incumbency mood affects Republicans too in this midterm election season. The public is frustrated by the economy, which is growing again but not creating the jobs that give businesses and families confidence. Almost 10 percent of workers remain unemployed.
And there is the rising source of frustration that Bennet asked Obama about at a Democratic forum earlier this month: partisanship.
"What are we going to do differently?" Bennet said to Obama at that nationally televised event. "What are you going to do differently?"
Obama's strategy is to try to work with Republicans, but campaign to get Democrats elected.
Money raised at the two fundraisers Obama attended for Bennet will be shared among Bennet, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Colorado Democratic Party.
Bennet was appointed to the Senate after Obama plucked the incumbent, Ken Salazar, to be interior secretary. Obama's involvement has frustrated Bennet's Democratic challenger, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, and some other party officials who say Obama should stay out of the primary.
When the president travels for fundraisers, it is taxpayers, not the benefiting campaign or political party, who pay almost all the huge costs associated with his travel. That is even more so the case when the White House pairs at least one "official" event with the political ones, as Obama is doing on this overnight trip.
Obama's Las Vegas speech has its own twist. City political and business leaders say the president twice has singled out Las Vegas — a tourism-dependent destination known as Sin City — as his example when he talks of how people and businesses should not spend wastefully in hard times.
After the last dustup this month, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said Obama was no longer welcome in the city, and even Reid told Obama to "lay off Las Vegas."
Obama responded to Reid that he meant nothing negative and that "there is no place better to have fun than Vegas."