WASHINGTON - Barack Obama easily won the Louisiana and Mississippi primaries earlier this year, but his face still appears in television ads in both states. Republicans are trying to turn him into a liability for Democrats in two special elections.
Democratic victories in the long-held Republican seats would go a long way to reassure nervous Democrats, particularly undecided superdelegates, that Obama would not hurt congressional candidates in tough races this fall.
Democratic losses, however, would give Hillary Clinton new ammunition to build her case as the stronger nominee by questioning the reach of Obama's coattails.
"I think people want to know what chances we're going to be having in November if Obama is the nominee," said US Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat who has endorsed Clinton.
Voters in Louisiana's Sixth Congressional District, held by Republicans for 32 years, will choose today between Democrat Don Cazayoux, who leads in the polls, and Republican Woody Jenkins. The seat had belonged to former representative Richard Baker, a Republican who resigned earlier this year to work with hedge funds.
In Mississippi's First District, in Republican hands since 1995, Democrat Travis Childers is competing with Republican Greg Davis to fill the seat held by Roger Wicker, who is now serving in the Senate. That election is May 13.
The Republican Party and one of its conservative allies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads portraying Obama as a liberal and tying Cazayoux and Childers to the Illinois senator.
"When it comes to taxes, both Travis Childers and Barack Obama think alike; they both want to raise them," says an ad by Freedom's Watch, an outside group financed by wealthy Republican contributors.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the branch of the national party that assists GOP candidates, has linked Childers and Cazayoux to Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In Louisiana, the party's ad says Obama and Pelosi represent "a radical agenda, very different from Louisiana's values."
Tom Cole, chairman of the committee and a congressman from Oklahoma, this week said Republicans would rather run with Obama at the top of the Democratic presidential ticket.
That represents a change in attitude for Republicans, many of whom had argued earlier that Clinton would probably energize Republicans against her and thus help down-ticket Republicans.
But now, some Republican strategists say, any connection between Democratic candidates, even conservative Democrats such as Cazayoux and Childers, and Obama will erode their support among blue-collar voters.
Democratic Party officials, however, say the Obama links in the Mississippi and Louisiana races are having no effect.