NEW YORK -- To gauge how politically weakened President Barack Obama has become, look to the 9th Congressional District in New York City, where voters unhappy with the president may elect a Republican for the first time.
Tuesday's special election to replace former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner has become too close to call, with public opinion polling showing a slight edge for Republican Bob Turner, a retired media executive with no prior political experience.
Panicked at the prospect of an embarrassing loss, Democrats have poured cash into the race and sent in their stars to try to save the party's candidate, state Assemblyman David Weprin. He has been forced to defend Obama's economic policies even as he tries to stress his own independence and close ties to the community.
Republicans are working to frame the race as a referendum on Obama, even though turnout is usually low in a special congressional election.
On Monday, House Republican Leader Eric Cantor argued that a Turner victory would be an "unprecedented win" and the latest evidence of voter dissatisfaction with Obama.
"That district is not unlike the rest of the country. People are very unhappy with the economy tight now and, frankly, I would say unhappy with the lack of leadership on the part of this White House," Cantor, of Virginia, told reporters in the Capitol. "
Back in the district that spans parts of Queens and Brooklyn, Turner campaigned with Rudy Giuliani, the popular former New York City Republican mayor.
"Our constituents here are concerned about the basics," Turner said. "We're going to get that vote out. We're going to win, and the message will come through loud and clear tomorrow. We'll wait to hear what the voters say."
With a large population of Catholic and Orthodox Jewish residents, the district is broadly blue collar and more conservative than many others in the city. It's the kind of white, working class environment Obama struggled with in his 2008 campaign even as he was easily winning most other traditional Democratic constituencies.
A Siena Poll released Friday showed Turner leading Weprin among likely voters, with 50-44 percent margin. The same poll found just 43 percent of voters approving of Obama's job performance, while 54 percent said they disapproved. The president fared much worse among independents. Just 29 percent said they approved of his job performance, while 68 percent disapproved.
Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said such numbers portend much bigger problems for Obama as he prepares to seek re-election in 2012.
"If the Democrats lose this race, it's a big failure and a huge rebuke on Obama's policies. Voters don't believe him anymore," Sheinkopf said. "If they lose a blue collar Democratic district in Queens, what happens in blue collar, Democratic districts around the nation next year?"
Other Democrats – including the White House – pushed back on that assessment, suggesting a combination of factors have contributed to the tight contest.
They point to relative lack of awareness of the race and a likely low turnout, in which the more motivated voters – in this case, Turner's – can be expected to go to the polls. And there is residual anger among some voters at Weiner, who was pushed by party leaders to resign last June for sending sexually provocative tweets and text messages to women he met online.
"Obviously special elections – small turnout, circumstances involving why the special election is taking place all have an impact on races like that," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday.
Hoping to shift the momentum in the final days, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has invested more than $500,000 in ads in New York's pricey television market. An independent Democratic group, the House Majority PAC, is running ads, too. And Obama for America, part of the Democratic National Committee that support the president's re-election, is urging volunteers to rally behind Weprin and help get his backers to the polls.
The party also has enlisted two of its biggest guns, former President Bill Clinton and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to record phone calls for Weprin. And Democrats are relying on organized labor and other affiliated groups to bring voters to the polls.
"We're going to fight for every vote until the polls close Tuesday," DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said. "When voters learn the real difference between David Weprin and Bob Turner, they'll vote their Democratic values."
Weprin has tried to cast Turner as hostile to popular entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. It's a formula that worked for another Democrat, Kathy Hochul, who won a heavily Republican upstate New York district in a special election last May by vowing to protect those programs.
But Weprin, an orthodox Jew, has been on the defensive on gay marriage and Israel, which could peel away some support from the Orthodox community. He voted in favor of same sex nuptials in the New York Assembly, and some Jewish voters have threatened to withhold support for Weprin because they disapprove of Obama's policies toward the Jewish state.
Siena Poll Director Steve Greenberg said the economy remained the most important issue in the race. And, he said, that spells bad news for Democrats in this special election and nationally, Greenberg said.
"We have people hurting, in need of jobs, and they are blaming Washington. They are angry and frustrated. And Barack Obama is getting the brunt of their anger," Greenberg said.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.