October 30th, 2010
08:28 PM ET
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) – Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin remembers sitting down for a meeting at the White House with the rest of the Democratic leadership a month ago, when President Obama promised he was blowing up his schedule to try to help keep control of Congress.
"He said, 'I'm going on the campaign trail for the next month, and I told my scheduler to ignore me when I say I'm tired,'" Durbin, D-Illinois, recalled in the cold of an outdoor rally just a few blocks from Obama's home. The Saturday event drew at least 35,000 people, according to Democratic officials.
Now, with just two days left until the midterm election, the question is whether that love will translate into Democratic victories across the country, let alone in Obama's own backyard.
"This is home," Durbin added as Obama lingered nearby, working an extra long rope line, "and these people love him."
But the fact that the president had to come to his home state in the final stage before the election, holding this rally to try to bail out Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic candidate for Obama's old Senate seat, speaks volumes about how much his party is on the defensive.
White House senior adviser David Axelrod, who came home with Obama for the next-to-last presidential rally before Sunday's last event in Cleveland, tried to be philosophical when pressed on why the president had to work so hard just to help Giannoulias and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who's facing an uphill re-election battle.
"Look, that's the nature of politics," Axelrod told reporters. "Lots of twists and turns."
For his part, Axelrod said he's confident Democrats can still hold onto control of both the House and Senate, while Durbin seemed cautiously optimistic about the state of play in his chamber.
"I think we keep our majority," Durbin said, though he would not speculate on how many seats Democrats would wind up having.
But in private conversations over the past few days, other senior advisers to Obama have been more blunt about how difficult it will be for Democrats to hold onto control of Congress.
Two senior Democratic officials privately said they think control of the House is "gone," and they added that the majority in the Senate is teetering right now because of continued worries about whether incumbents like Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state can hold on.
Democratic officials shared with CNN an internal tracking poll that had Murray up just two points over Republican Dino Rossi earlier this week, though the officials added that Murray has stabilized a bit with a private lead of four points this weekend, though there is still concern about whether she can close it out.
Meanwhile, the Democratic officials expressed apprehension that most public polls continue to show Reid slightly trailing Republican Sharron Angle. One of the senior officials quipped that "only Reid's pollster" has had him leading in private polls, leading party insiders to question whether he can really come back.
Another challenge for Obama is that his insistence that the final case to voters be all about a choice between Democrats and Republicans – instead of a referendum on his party's leadership – is not being followed as closely as the White House might like.
After Obama addressed nearly 2,000 volunteers in Philadelphia earlier in the day, Mayor Michael Nutter suggested to reporters that Tuesday's election is, in fact, all about Republicans trying to stop the president ahead of the next election.
"People have figured out 2010 is really about 2012," Nutter said. "Republicans are trying to weaken him in '10. ... They will attack him in '11" in the run-up to the 2012 election.
Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, backed Nutter up by saying, "the President said the other day he's not on the ballot, but his agenda is."
Fattah added the president has a "lot more to do," and this is no time to give power back to a party that has a "terrible record."
Nutter and Fattah both said they're seeing momentum turn to the Democrats in races like Pennsylvania's critical Senate battle between Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey.
"The trend is always your friend in polls," Fattah said.
After a large rally in the middle of the day in Connecticut, the site of another key Senate battle, here in Chicago the president acknowledged "this is a tough year" for the country and his party.
But he said the country "lost almost 8 million jobs before any of my economic policies had a chance" to take hold, and Republicans should not get a chance to set the agenda again.
"We've tried what they're selling and we're not buying it," Obama said. "We're not going back."
As he came to the precipice of completing the month-long sprint that he promised Democratic leaders back at that meeting in the White House, Obama seemed thrilled that this rally was held literally just a few blocks from his home on the South Side of Chicago.
"Nice to be home!" Obama told the large crowd that interrupted him with chants of "O-bam-a, O-bam-a!"
He added, "Plus, I'm going to sleep in my own bed tonight."