ARLINGTON, Va. — Facing criticism over his health care plan as well as lower approval ratings, President Obama returned Sunday to the friendly confines of the campaign trail.
"I want to get in on the action!" Obama told a boisterous crowd of more than 1,500 who gathered in a high school gym on behalf of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.
Obama, McAuliffe and other Democratic speakers sought to link Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli to the recent federal government shutdown, while Cuccinelli and Republicans hammered Obama and McAuliffe over problems with the president's health care law.
Saying that Tuesday's election in Virginia has national ramifications, Obama praised McAuliffe, defended his own record, and attacked Tea Party Republicans for a series of budget disputes that included last month's 16-day shutdown.
"You've seen an extreme faction of the Republican Party that has shown again and again and again that they're willing to highjack the entire party — and the country and the economy — and grind progress to an absolute halt if they don't get 100% of what they want," Obama said.
While polls give McAuliffe a lead, Obama — who carried Virginia twice — warned the crowd in his 20-minute speech that the commonwealth remains a "swing state" and they need to get Democrats to the polls.
"I want to put the fear of God in all of you!" Obama said during a rally at Washington-Lee High School that also featured other Democratic office-seekers as well as actress Kerry Washington from television's Scandal.
McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a long-time associate of former president Bill Clinton, also blamed Republicans for the recent government shutdown, and tried to tie it to his GOP opponent.
"We are not going to forget that Ken Cuccinelli sided with the Tea Party against Virginia families," McAuliffe said.
Virginia holds one of two governor's races on Tuesday, and is the state where Democrats have the best chance. In New Jersey, Republican incumbent Chris Christie is considered a solid favorite.
Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general, stressed problems with the health care rollout during a conference call with reporters ahead of Obama's remarks. He cited an inoperable website and complaints about canceled policies, despite Obama's past promise that people could keep their insurance if they want.
"He lied when he said you can keep your doctor," Cuccinelli said. "I've heard from job creators and health care providers about the negative impact Obamacare is already having across our economy."
Cuccinelli also said that the "stunning failure of HealthCare.gov" should not hide that "the law itself is broken."
His younger brother — Kevin Cuccinelli, a family doctor in Colorado — led a protest of the Obama appearance outside of the Arlington high school. Among the chants: "Hey, hey, ho ho, Obamacare has to got to go."
Obama referenced the health care plan only in passing at the McAuliffe rally, saying at one point that health costs are slowing.
A year after his own re-election, Obama — also under fire for the Oct. 1 shutdown and government surveillance policies — has seen his approval ratings fall. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week said only 42% approved of Obama's performance, his lowest number in that survey.
It was Obama's second candidate campaign rally in this political off-year. He spoke June 12 for then-candidate Ed Markey, who won a special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts.
In Arlington, about 100-150 people stood across the street from the high school's entrance, many carrying signs such as "liberal women wake up" and "McAuliffe and Obama liars."
Steve Richardson, a McAuliffe supporter waiting to get inside the rally, called the protest "desperate."
"McAuliffe has clearly taken the lead and is holding on," said Richardson, who is self-employed and lives in Arlington. "They're trying to do a few Hail Mary passes."
Richardson said he is supporting McAuliffe because "he's got the values I have. He supports gay rights and women's rights. He's in tune with the state."