WASHINGTON — After a rousing campaign rally for New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine last summer, President Barack Obama flashed a broad smile to an aide as he boarded his helicopter back to the White House.
"That was the most fun I've had in a while," he said.
Obama likes campaigning. And it shows. He relishes the chance to shed his jacket, roll up his sleeves, dust off his rhetoric and energize a political crowd.
During this week's health care push on Capitol Hill, Obama and senior advisers have been telling lawmakers that they will not be left standing alone in a difficult election year if they cast a tough vote for the health care overhaul.
But with Obama's popular support at its lowest level since he took office, it's unclear which Democrats will want to wrap themselves in his presidency as the party heads into the midterm election campaign.
When Obama campaigned for his health care overhaul last week in Missouri – he narrowly lost the state to Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008 – presumptive Senate candidate Robin Carnahan was conveniently away. At a fundraiser for Senate Democrats and strong-willed Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Obama used his rhetoric to distance McCaskill from his presidency even as he raised cash for her 2012 re-election campaign.
"She's a standout because she speaks truth to power. She's not afraid of anybody, speaks her mind," Obama said. "Sometimes she tells me things. And I'm the president."
The line got a laugh in St. Louis, but it underscores the White House's uncomfortable situation.
In interviews with more than a dozen Democrats in Washington and in competitive races across the country, the overwhelming sense is that Obama will be most useful in races that depend on big turnouts of the Democratic base that rallied to his cause in 2008 – contests like the one to fill Obama's former Senate seat in Illinois. He is far more popular there than he is nationally; home-state Democrats still identify with the president.
He's also a strong fundraiser, drawing some $3 million in just one Chicago night last year.
Watch for an election schedule to emerge with Obama at lots of fundraising dinners with the party faithful, a familiar – and safe – role for any president. And look for party officials to keep him away from moderate Democrats and imperiled incumbents who risk being branded as White House yes-men and being tarred with Obama's problems.
Also, look for Obama:
_In races that hinge on high black voter turnout, such as Virginia's 5th Congressional District. Rep. Tom Perriello has been a loyal vote for the White House even though he won by just 745 votes in a district that is 23 percent black. Include Ohio Rep. Steve Driehaus' re-election bid in a Cincinnati-area district that is 29 percent black. A surge of black voters helped both win in 2008; Obama would be key to giving them – and others like them – a second term.
_In the 49 districts Obama carried that elected Republican members of Congress in 2008. Those places knew and liked their incumbent lawmakers. Taking advantage of growing anti-incumbent feelings, Democrats hope voters in such districts may be persuaded to cast a ballot again on Obama's urging – even though he isn't on the ticket.
_With candidates whose fundraising has been lackluster, such as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, whose campaign war chest is a fraction of those of his Republican challengers. Obama already has visited fundraisers for his fellow Harvard Law School graduate.
_In hometowns of lawmakers who were early endorsers of Obama's presidential bid, such as New Hampshire's Paul Hodes, who is leaving the House to run for the Senate. Also look for frequent trips to Pennsylvania, a perennial swing state whose senior senator, Arlen Specter, left the GOP for the Democratic Party last year.
_In districts where Democrats barely won on the coattails of Obama, such as Ohio's 15th District. Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy went through a monthlong recount that gave her a win with less than 1 percentage point. Any Obama appearance in that district, which includes Ohio State University, helps the president's 2012 chances, even if Kilroy exits Washington after just one term.
_In true-blue Democratic districts where he can raise cash. Look at his regular trips to places such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The White House also will use Vice President Joe Biden to raise money and help Democrats in blue-collar and rural districts where voters love his folksy style. On Monday, Biden made his 51st political stop, campaigning in Ohio for Driehaus, an uncertain vote for the president's health care overhaul.
While Republicans will be seeking to turn the midterm elections into a national referendum on Obama and his policies, Democratic campaign officials will be working to ensure that voters see House and Senate campaigns as a choice between the candidates on the ballot.
Obama's fine with that, as long as he gets to hit the campaign trail again.
In his view, a hoarse Obama is better than an even-toned one. An Obama who strains to shout over a cheering crowd is happier than the one seen in the Rose Garden. He favors high school gyms in small towns in the heartland over ornate halls of power in Washington, raucous rallies over somber signing ceremonies.
Much more fun than the workaday labors of governing for sure.