WASHINGTON (AP) -- Turns out Louisiana and Mississippi weren't quite finished with the Democratic presidential campaign. Sen. Barack Obama won each state's primary earlier this year. But these days his face still appears in television ads in both states, this time from Republicans trying to turn him into a liability for Democrats in two looming special elections for long-held Republican seats.
Democratic victories would be a serious setback for Republicans. But it also would go a long way to reassure nervous Democrats, particularly undecided superdelegates, that Obama would not present a hardship to House or Senate candidates running in tough races.
Democratic losses would give Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton new ammunition to build her case for her presidential candidacy by questioning the sturdiness 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 U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat who has endorsed Clinton.
"There are a host of judgments that superdelegates make," said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has not endorsed either presidential candidate. "Certainly a special election held close to a contested primary like this one could be very relevant."
Both races present Democrats with an unusual chance for an early capture of Republican seats.
Voters in Louisiana's 6th Congressional District, held by Republicans for 32 years, will choose Saturday between Democrat Don Cazayoux, who leads in the polls, and Republican Woody Jenkins. The seat had belonged to former Republican Rep. Richard Baker, who resigned earlier this year to work with hedge funds.
In Mississippi's 1st 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 as a replacement for former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. That election is May 13.
Republicans clearly hope Obama is a Democratic albatross. 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, D-Calif. In Louisiana, the party's ad says Obama and Pelosi represent "a radical agenda, very different from Louisiana's values."
"Is Obama right for Louisiana? Is Pelosi?" the spot asks.
NRCC Chairman Tom Cole, a GOP congressman from Oklahoma, this week said Republicans would rather run with Obama at the top of the Democratic presidential ticket than Clinton. That represents a change in attitude for Republicans, many of whom had argued earlier that Clinton would likely 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. And they say that since the ads began running, the Democrats' leads have shrunk.
Obama "is by any definition very liberal, to the left of Hillary Clinton, in a center-right country," Cole said. "That is very, very helpful to us."
According to Federal Election Commission figures and data provided by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the NRCC has spent more than $600,000 and Freedom's Watch is spending $120,000 in Mississippi's 1st District. The GOP is spending nearly $440,000 and Freedom's Watch is spending $126,000 in Louisiana's 6th District.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has outspent their Republican counterparts in each district - nearly $1.2 million in Louisiana and more than $1.1 million in Mississippi.
Democratic Party officials and strategists, however, say the Obama links in the Mississippi and Louisiana races are having no effect.
"The fact that these two seats are competitive is news in itself," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "You've got the NRCC and Freedom's Watch spending a boat load to try and defend seats that were just held by Republicans. It shows the mood change throughout the electorate."
If the ads aren't having any effect, Childers nevertheless isn't taking any chances and has put some distance with Obama. "He hasn't contacted me. I haven't contacted Senator Obama," he said in an interview. "I'm not running for president. I'm running for Congress. I'm staying focused and I'm on a mission."
Some Republicans are surprised that the party and Freedom's Watch chose to make Obama an issue in two congressional districts with sizable African-American populations. One-third of the population in the Louisiana district and one-quarter of the population in the Mississippi district is black.
"In surveys I have seen, African-Americans are more likely to be undecided than white voters," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who has been following the Louisiana contest. "Consequently, linking Cazayoux to Obama could help him significantly with undecideds and make them break Cazayoux's way."
Democratic wins in both contests would not only boost Obama's credentials, they could undermine Republican strategy. But Fabrizio said that, too, could be a mistake. He said he still believes Obama is greater liability for Democrats than Clinton, but that the two current special elections were not the contests to test whether Obama would drag down Democratic congressional candidates.
"A lot of these (Democrats) who are out there running don't even know what this guy stands for," Fabrizio said. "Whereas Clinton, if the race is against her, the race will be more about issues, rather than stature or an ideological gap. We already know she's a liberal. So we're going to push this guy further than her."
No doubt, Republicans would use either Clinton or Obama as a Republican foil in close congressional races. And even Democrats concede that who is perceived as a burden and who is an asset is a matter of geography.
"I have had members say that if Barack is not on our ballot in our state, we lose," said Rep. Sam Farr, a California Democrat and undeclared superdelegate. "I've heard people in Pennsylvania say that if Hillary is not on the ballot, they'd lose. I guess it depends where you are in this country."
Obama has shown an ability to drive up African-American turnout in a way that would be of special benefit in some congressional districts and statewide races. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat who has not aligned himself with either candidate, said Obama at the top of the ticket could cause an outpouring of African-American votes for Democratic Mississippi Senate candidate Ronnie Musgrove.
"What the big question mark is, and I guess we won't know until November, is what's the turnout for the guy who just can't vote for the black man, just won't do it, for whatever reason," he said. "That's the big unknown."
The special elections might offer a clue.
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