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The political calculus behind Mary Burke's decision not to appear with Obama
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Burke said that she spoke to the president over the phone and had "shared with him the concerns" of Wisconsin's middle class.
Burke said that she spoke to the president over the phone and had "shared with him the concerns" of Wisconsin's middle class.

President Barack Obama's visit to a General Electric facility in Waukesha on Thursday, Jan. 30 has caused some problems for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, who has decided not to appear with the president.

According to spokesperson Joe Zepecki, Burke's Thursday schedule is packed with a full day of appearances and meetings in La Crosse, where she will be stopping at a business incubator and visiting the UW-La Crosse campus.

Republicans have criticized Burke, who is challenging Republican Gov. Scott Walker, for avoiding the president. And the state party released a video Wednesday mocking her decision.

"Mary Burke can try to hide from Barack Obama's failures, but she can't fool the people of Wisconsin," said Wisconsin GOP Executive Director Joe Fadness in a statement.

Obama's low approval ratings presented a dilemma for Burke, a former Trek executive who is making her first statewide run for office, and who needs to get her name out there. According to a Marquette Law School poll released Monday, about 70% of those surveyed did not have an opinion of Burke.

But Obama is not looking like much of an asset to Democratic candidates this year: According to the most recent Gallup polling, just 41% of Americans approve of the president's performance, which is close to his all-time low of 38%.

Still, is it wise for a relatively unknown candidate to steer clear of the most visible leader in the world?

"If he was at 65% approval, she would find time to be there," says UW-Madison political science professor Ken Mayer. "Even Miss Manners says that it's proper to cancel a wedding RSVP if you are … invited to the White House."

"She is making a purposeful decision not to appear with Obama," adds Mayer. "That makes some sense as her main liability is that Walker will try to portray her as an out-of-touch Madison liberal, and she no doubt feels the need to maintain some distance from the president who is not very popular among independents."

UW-Madison political science professor David Canon says Burke's decision is both "a missed opportunity to reach her base of strong Democratic supporters" and a "calculation on the part of her campaign that they were likely to lose more independent voters by meeting President Obama. It is anyone's guess as to whether that was the right call. My personal view is that it probably would have been better to meet the president."

Poor name recognition is a problem for most candidates with little or no elective office experience who run against an incumbent. Republican Ron Johnson, who defeated Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in November 2010 by five points, was not even mentioned in a March poll about Feingold's potential GOP opponents conducted by Public Policy Polling. A month after he declared his candidacy, Johnson still hadn't made an impression on half of the conservatives surveyed by the pollster in a June poll.

"Burke is actually way ahead of where Feingold's challengers were in 2010," says Canon.

Burke took to social media after the release of the Republican video, saying that she spoke to the president over the phone and had "shared with him the concerns” of Wisconsin's middle class.

"We hope the President is back in Wisconsin before November to campaign with Mary," added Zepecki in an email to Isthmus.

At this point, Burke's decision to stay away from Obama may be Walker's gain: according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report, the governor will greet Obama at Mitchell Field to discuss the state's propane shortage.

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