CHICAGO — Battling to keep his old Senate seat out of GOP hands, President Barack Obama on Thursday recalled the joy that swept his hometown backers on election night two years ago and said the "mission" he began that night is at stake in the coming midterm vote.
Obama flew here to raise cash for Illinois treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who faces a tough fight for the seat with Republican Rep. Mark Kirk. It's been a slugfest, and polls put the race neck-and-neck.
"All my friends in the house!" Obama shouted to cheers at the Drake Hotel at the first of two events expected to net more than $750,000 for Giannoulias and other Democratic Senate campaigns.
"I hope you're fired up in these last few weeks," he said. "It's up to you to defy the conventional wisdom once again."
Recalling the warm November night in Grant Park when he appeared before a roaring throng as America's first black president, Obama said that event "just gave us the chance to make change happen. That was the start, not the finish of the journey."
"Two years later," he said, "the success of that mission is at stake."
Republicans, scenting a big symbolic triumph in Obama's backyard, have been pouring money into Illinois, running campaign ads portraying Giannoulias as a likely rubber stamp for Obama. Giannoulias has responded by saying Kirk has taken huge contributions from special interests, and has routinely done their bidding.
"Congressman Kirk isn't part of the problem in Washington, D.C. He is the problem," Giannoulias said.
Giannoulias is a longtime Obama ally and basketball teammate, and Obama called him a dauntless competitor.
"I have, still, some sore ribs to prove it," he said. "And we've seen that in the campaign. He just keeps plowing ahead."
Obama's visit was also designed to boost Gov. Pat Quinn, who took over when Rod Blagojevich was impeached over corruption charges and trails Republican state Sen. Bill Brady in the polls. Quinn was first in line at the stairs of Air Force One to greet Obama at O'Hare airport.
Conspicuous by his absence, however, was Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago congressman who until last week was Obama's White House chief of staff. Since stepping down, he's been touring city neighborhoods, preparing a run for mayor.
"Have you seen my chief of staff?" Obama quipped to knowing laughter. "I was looking around, it's like, what happened?"
Obama said voters face a stark choice in next month's vote between moving forward, and sliding back.
Kirk campaign spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski agreed there's a choice, but said it was between a "fiscal conservative who wants to tax less, spend less and borrow less and Alexi Giannoulias who can't name one spending bill he would vote against in addition to supporting higher state and federal income taxes."
Later, Obama attended a private fundraising dinner at the Gold Coast home of Leslie Bluhm, a Democratic activist and head of Chicago Cares.
The Chicago stop was the second of two on Obama's campaign schedule as he seeks to inspire Democrats to turn out despite a wide gap in enthusiasm for the vote and angst over the still-struggling economy.
Earlier, in a rally at Bowie State University in Maryland to boost Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's re-election bid, Obama implored a campus audience to recapture the excitement of 2008.
"There's an election coming up," he said. "It's going to say a lot about the future – your future, but also the future of the country."
Suit coat off and shirt sleeves rolled up, he cast the congressional elections as a national choice, hoping to stir up voters who often pay little attention to off-year voting. Democrats are fighting to hang onto their control of House and Senate, a steep challenge given the economic times and sour public mood.
Obama also took fresh aim at the flow of private money that is fueling attack ads across the country. Groups allied with the Republican Party have amassed a crushing advantage in television spending this election cycle, hampering Democratic efforts. The groups, which don't have to disclose their source of funds, appear to be benefiting from a Supreme Court ruling – fiercely opposed by Obama – that freed big business to spend money directly to sway federal elections.
"The floodgates are open," Obama declared, calling it "a threat to our democracy."
He said it means Democrats will just have to work that much harder.
"We're going to need to fight their millions of dollars with millions of voices," he said to cheers.