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May Primaries Test Democrats In Red, Purple States

The first major wave of primary elections in 2010 -- beginning today in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio -- features a number of competitive Democratic primaries in purple and red states. Given that the political environment is challenging enough for the majority party nationally, candidates seeking their party's nominations in these states are faced with an additional dilemma: How far can they stray from the center in order to win support from their base?

Of the 10 states with primary elections this month, John McCain carried five by more than a dozen points. Another three - coincidentally the ones voting today - were red states in 2004 that went narrowly for Barack Obama in 2008. Only in two did the Illinois Democrat win by double digits. Now, the president's numbers are under water in all but Oregon, according to available public polling of voters in these states.

Among Democrats who will head to the polls this month, however, support for Obama and his policies remains fairly strong. But that hasn't stopped candidates in the reddest states eyeing the fight ahead in November from drawing distinctions now, even in tough primary races.

In no case is that more clear than in Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln declared in her very first television ad: "I don't answer to my party, I answer to Arkansas." Gabe Holmstrom, a senior adviser for the state party in Arkansas, said that message is simply one that Democrats have long pressed successfully.

"We're definitely a different breed of Democrat here in Arkansas," he said. "She's not the first elected official here to run with an Arkansas-centric message."

In Kentucky, another state where Obama's approval rating hovers in the mid- to high-30s, both Senate hopefuls have also walked a fine line in appealing for primary support. Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, for instance, touted in one press release that he has "been the most outspoken and vocal critic" of both the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress when it comes to cap-and-trade. The importance of the coal industry to the state is at play here.

But the Democratic candidates in states like Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are more closely toeing the party line. In one of his ads, Cal Cunningham appeals to Tarheel State Democrats by saying he has "the most comprehensive plan to work with President Obama to create jobs." Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner, running for the Senate nomination in Ohio, both said they strongly supported a public option during the health care battle. And in Pennsylvania, former Republican Arlen Specter has a nearly flawless Democratic voting record in the year since he switched parties, as he looks to fend off a challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak.

NRSC chairman John Cornyn said that these Democrats having to run to the left now will make them "more vulnerable" in November. Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania disagreed that the positioning would weaken the eventual Democratic winner, but conceded the fight has weakened whoever wins because the Republican candidate in his state, as well as Ohio and North Carolina, is unopposed.

"The winner of the Democratic primary will be broke and 5 or 6 million dollars behind the Republican candidate, and that's where it's really going to hurt," he said.