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Obama preaches unity to Democrats at winter meeting

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at Organizing for Action's "National Organizing Summit" in Washington February 25, 2014. REUTER
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at Organizing for Action's "National Organizing Summit" in Washington February 25, 2014. REUTER

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A fiery President Barack Obama on Friday attempted to rally Democratic activists to overcome stiff headwinds and work hard for the party's congressional candidates this year in an election-year speech that was sharply critical of Republicans.

The president addressed the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington with the aim of maintaining a spirit of unity among party activists. Democrats are trying to face down emboldened Republicans who see a chance of capturing the Senate and building on their majority in the House of Representatives.

Invoking Democratic heroes such as John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, Obama told party faithful that Democrats can win "if we stay focused on what we believe in."

All 435 members of the House and a third of the 100-member Senate are up for grabs in November elections.

Obama faces a difficult challenge. The party that controls the White House in these so-called "midterm" elections typically loses seats in Congress.

Obama urged Democrats to resist any notion that they might lose, noting their superior numbers in general.

"When Democrats have everybody in the field we cannot lose. That's just a fact. That's just the raw numbers. When Democrats vote, we win," he said.

Republican voter models, he said, "are constructed based on the idea that Americans will sit out this election because they look at the past, and in the past a lot of Democrats don't vote in the midterms."

Part of Democrats' struggles this year are of Obama's own making. The rollout of his healthcare law last October has proven difficult and is still controversial.

Obama ridiculed Republicans for continuing to try to repeal the law and vowed to fight to make sure more Americans sign up for coverage under the law.

"We will not apologize for it, it's the right thing to do," he said.

Obama made the case that there are still items on his agenda that he would like to see approved in an election year. Immigration reform stands out as one top item the president would like despite tough odds.

But he also used his drive early this year to promote policies to create jobs for the middle class as an election-year appeal for voters to support Democrats.

He argued that Democrats stand for middle-class values versus Republicans who stand for wealthier people.

"The choice couldn't be more clear. Opportunity for a few - or opportunity for all," Obama said.

JOBS AND RIGHTS

Obama said the budget he plans to propose next week for fiscal 2015 will seek funding for projects to create jobs in manufacturing, energy and infrastructure and will pay for the new spending "by cutting unnecessary spending, and closing wasteful tax loopholes."

The president, in a potential foreshadowing of attacks other Democrats will use this year, also tied Republicans to a bill supported by their party's legislators in Arizona to discriminate against gays and lesbians on religious grounds.

"In some states, (Republicans are) so far in the past they're even pushing laws to legalize segregation based on sexual orientation," he said. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, also Republican, vetoed the bill on Wednesday.

Despite his ability to gin up fellow Democrats, Obama's overall approval rating - 43 percent, according to an average of recent polls by the Real Clear Politics website - is a warning to the party. His popularity has suffered as a result of the disastrous rollout of his healthcare law in October.

While the president is expected to travel widely this year on behalf of his party, the White House acknowledges that Obama will steer clear of Republican-leaning states where his presence would not help.

"The president's political goal is to win as many seats up and down the ballot as possible. We recognize it doesn't make sense to have a sitting Democratic president campaign in some of these redder states," a White House aide said.

The White House approach is not "where can we campaign" but instead is "how can we help," the aide said.

Twice elected president with overwhelming financial support, Obama will engage in a sweeping effort to raise money for Democratic candidates.

He plans to headline 30 fundraisers through June, 18 for the DNC and 12 for party money-raising arms for House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates, the aide said.

In addition, Obama will commit to attending events for House and Senate Super PAC, an organization that pools campaign donations and uses the money to campaign for or against a candidate.

Obama has spent much of the early part of this year pushing for action in areas to help the middle class, such as raising the minimum wage. This has the effect of creating a narrative for Democrats to run on.

(Editing by Ken Wills)

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