White House denies tea party ad campaign. But will Obama attack the movement?

Holly Bailey

With polls showing Democrats in real trouble ahead of November's midterm elections, the New York Times reports the White House is weighing a "range of ideas," including a national ad campaign, suggesting the GOP has been overtaken by "tea party extremists."

The piece, written by Jackie Calmes and Mike Shear, quotes an unnamed Democratic strategist "who has spoken" with President Obama's aides about the proposed ad campaign. Yet Democratic party officials are reportedly wary about the plan, citing worries about nationalizing the campaign at a time when Obama's poll ratings are so dismal.

But as noted in the story and elsewhere, the White House is strongly denying that "any national ad campaign" is being planned. "There's been no discussion of such a thing at the White House or the Democratic National Committee," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod tells the Times. Another adviser tells Politico's Mike Allen that the story is "just flat-out, 100 percent wrong." "The first time Obama's advisers heard about a national ad campaign is when the story showed up on the Times' website last night," the unnamed White House official said.

Dean Baquet, the Times' Washington bureau chief, says the paper stands by its story.

As with all seemingly sweeping pronouncements from politicos, the semantics of these statements are telling. Axelrod and other Obama officials are specifically pushing back against the idea of a "national ad campaign"-- but they aren't denying there have been internal discussions about the larger strategy of what the Democrats' message about the tea party should be in the final weeks of the campaign.

The big question: How far should Obama go in linking the GOP to the tea party, or should he just avoid the subject altogether? On this, the White House faces a serious dilemma. On one hand, Obama wants to try to energize the voting base that supported him in 2008, with appeals highlighting how motivated--and how dangerously fringe, in Democrats' view of the world--their conservative counterparts are. On the other hand, polls for months have shown that the most motivated voters heading into the midterms are people sympathetic to the tea party cause who are angry with Obama--meaning that attacks from the president may backfire, charging up the conservative tea party base all that much more. After all, iit's one thing for a local candidate to go after tea party candidates in their district, and quite another for the president to start voicing that message.

In recent weeks, the White House has tried to gain momentum by having Obama attack John Boehner, the man in line to be the next Speaker of the House. But polls show that line of attack hasn' changed the larger dynamics favoring the GOP this year. On Friday, the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported that White House officials are now debating whether Obama should expand that attack to include Sarah Palin, which could be a way to link the GOP to the tea party.

But should the White House adopt that strategy, it will confront the same basic dilemma. On one hand, Palin is one of the most polarizing figures in politics. Republicans love her, and Democrats love to hate her. But its unclear if attacking Palin would actually do much to help Democrats stave off major losses in November or if it would simply elevate even more a potential competitor to Obama in 2012.

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