Not long ago, Democrats had it all: the first African-American president sitting in the Oval Office, the first female Speaker of the House and even a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Four years later, the only remaining piece - the presidency - might be taken away from them.
"The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term," President-Elect Barack Obama said on Nov. 4, 2008, in Chicago's Grant Park.
From an inherited economy that continues to sputter to pushing through a polarizing overhaul of health care, Obama's first four years in the White House have been politically difficult, and the incumbent is left with a rocky and very different path to a second term .
Democrats revelled in a protracted Republican presidential nominating contest this year that featured a parade of GOP characters, but the president's popularity is low and Democrats cannot focus the election solely on a candidate who once captured the imagination of a country. Instead, they prefer an election centered on the Republican challenger, in an attempt to lead independent voters in a select few swing states to conclude that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is out of touch with the middle class.
"President Obama had a very ambitious agenda and it was the right thing to do to move the country forward," said Democratic consultant Tom McMahon, who was executive director of the Democratic National Committee in 2008.
But it wasn't easy to convert what may have been the best presidential campaign in modern history - armed with 13 million email addresses - into a tool for governing. And the president's legislative agenda - the 2009 stimulus law, the 2010 health care overhaul and the cap-and-trade climate change bill that never made it to the president's desk - stirred a sleeping Republican Party and a phalanx of conservative tea party activists concerned about any expansion of government.
More importantly, the president's handling of health care overhaul - and the efforts of Romney and the Republicans to use the issue against him - may neutralize one of the Democrats' typically most potent political weapons.
"It has taken some of the air out of one of the mainstays that Democrats can fall back on," one Democratic strategist said of the president's hands-off approach to getting the health care law passed and of the idea that he waited too long to promote it after enactment.
And although Obama's campaign slogan is "Forward," he is leading the country at a time when a majority of Americans say the nation is headed off on the wrong track. In addition, the president's approval rating has fallen considerably from the first months of his administration. Then, the public approved of the job he was doing by a 2-to-1 margin and today the country is evenly divided on Obama's performance.
Tallying Electoral Votes
That raises the stakes for his re-election, and greatly alters the map.
In 2008, due to an abundance of resources, an electorate still upset with the outgoing president and a foundation of campaign volunteers left over from primary campaigns, Obama expanded the playing field of competitive states in presidential elections. He won the Democratic states, the traditional swing states and added victories in Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, states that Republicans had carried in each of the previous seven elections.
But this year the race is reverting to a more traditional battlefield of eight true swing states and three states on the bubble that are therefore considered competitive.
The president's Electoral College aspirations probably start with 237 electoral votes including the reliably Democratic states plus the battlegrounds of Michigan and Pennsylvania, where both parties will spend money but the president has an advantage.
That means Obama will need 33 electoral votes out of eight remaining states: Colorado (9 electoral votes), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), Virginia (13) and Wisconsin (10) to get to 270. Winning Florida or Ohio would greatly improve the president's chances of getting re-elected but he could also win by running the table and securing the six smaller states. The 11th contested state - North Carolina - increasingly looks like a Romney win.
But not only has the map changed from four years ago, the entire frame of the election has as well. Obama is now an incumbent with a record to defend and he won't enjoy the same financial advantage - if any advantage at all - that he held over Arizona Sen. John McCain. With unemployment still above 8 percent nationally and an unsettled electorate, the incumbent is forced into a much different type of campaign this time around.
"In 2008, Obama's campaign was refreshing because it was about doing politics differently," McMahon said. "But inevitably every incumbent race ends up being a contrast between the incumbent and the challenger."
Democrats have chosen to attack Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, relentlessly to try to make them unacceptable to voters who may want change once again. That's why Democrats are pounding on the former governor's time at Bain Capital and turning up the heat on the House Budget chairman's fiscal policy blueprint.
"Go after his integrity so that people don't trust him on the economy," one Democratic strategist explained about the Democrats' not-at-all-veiled strategy. "That's why it's so ugly." But that type of campaign can make Obama look like a typical politician and might turn off needed supporters.
Young people were critical to the president's election four years ago. According to the exit polls, voters age 18-29 made up about the same percentage of the electorate as usual (18 percent) in 2008, but they voted overwhelmingly for Obama. He won 66 percent of younger voters compared to Sen. John Kerry's 54 percent just four years before.
But it's far from certain that the youth vote will be as enthusiastically in Obama's corner this year. Pounding Romney for unreleased tax returns may be an effective strategy, but it's tougher to see pop stars writing songs based on this year's rhetoric.
Young people comprise just one element of the president's hoped-for winning coalition, which also includes black and Hispanic voters, and women.
As was the case in 2008, Obama will be able to rely on strong, near universal, support from the African-American community, but Democrats are more excited about making further gains in the Latino community that is steadily growing in numbers and relevance.
Over the last three presidential elections, Hispanic voters have grown from 6 percent of the electorate in 2000 to 8 percent in 2004, and 9 percent in 2008. The question isn't whether the president will win a majority of Hispanic voters, but how large his margin will be. Kerry won Hispanics by 9 points in 2004, while Obama carried Hispanics by 36 points in 2008. And the president will rely on Hispanic voters to carry specific swing states such as Nevada and Colorado and potentially Florida.
Even though the gender gap is nothing new, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's recent comments about rape and abortion emboldened Democratic efforts to drive a deeper wedge between the Republican Party and women voters. Obama received 56 percent of the female vote in 2008, compared with 51 percent for Kerry's losing effort in 2004 and 54 percent for Al Gore's defeat in 2000.
Akin's comments also gave Democrats a renewed optimism about holding the closely divided Senate, even though Obama remains a polarizing incumbent and can be an asset or a liability, depending upon the state. While Democratic incumbents and candidates may attempt to ride the incumbent's coattails, other are attempting to pave independent paths to election.
Holding the Senate hinges on a mix of incumbents and challengers who need to distance themselves from the president in such states as Montana, Missouri and Indiana, and candidates in states where the president is expected to run well, such as Nevada, New Mexico and Hawaii.
Due to a quality crop of Senate candidate recruits, including Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Richard Carmona in Arizona and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Democrats are playing offense for GOP-held seats where victories might offset losses elsewhere.
Even though Senate Democrats are defending the class of 2006, which includes 23 Democratic seats and only 10 Republicans seats, the party is seen as at least even money to hold the majority.
On the House side, Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to regain control. But the best they can probably hope for, at this stage in the cycle, is to cut the GOP majority in half. Republicans strengthened their freshman House members through redistricting, and there is no wave building in favor of the Democrats.
In their efforts to make inroads, the Democrats probably need to pick up a few handfuls of seats in California, Illinois, and perhaps New York - states where Obama will do well - while minimizing their losses in more conservative states such as Utah, Oklahoma, Georgia and North Carolina.
Republican Benjamin Harrison, in 1892, was the last incumbent president to run for re-election and see his party gain at least 25 seats. Even then, the Republicans hardly made a dent in the Democrats' majority.
Yet in spite of the sobering news on the economy and the shape of the political landscape, Democrats are cautiously optimistic. Their party isn't particularly popular, but the GOP's image is in worse shape. Voters gave Democrats a 42 percent positive and 40 percent negative rating in the August NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. But that compares with the survey's 36 percent positive and 45 percent negative attitude toward Republicans.
"What's not appreciated is the damage to the Republican brand," according to veteran Democratic strategist J.B. Poersch.
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