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Without Obama, Southern Democrats try to hang on

Senate Armed Services Committee Member U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) is pursued by reporters after being briefed by military officials about the prisoner exchange that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl at the U.S. Capitol June 10, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 2008, Senate Democrats managed to strengthen its foothold in the South in part by capitalizing on the excitement that President Obama's campaign generated. Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana were re-elected, while Democrat Kay Hagan won her first term in North Carolina. All told, Senate Democrats had a breakthrough year, taking eight seats -- the most they'd won since 1986.

This year, those same Democrats are on the ballot again, and they're trying to keep up the support of the Democratic base that Mr. Obama helped them build. At the same time, politicians like Landrieu and Hagan know full well that a Southern Democrat can't rely solely on the support of liberal voters, particularly when the president has become so unpopular.

"The Democratic incumbents are trying to find the balance between declaring their independence from President Obama to appeal to voters in the middle but also capturing the energy of the Democratic base who still approves of President Obama," Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, told CBS News. "It's a tough line to walk."

With four weeks left until Election Day, polling suggests some Southern Democrats are pulling off the balancing act better than others. In the past month, Hagan has gained a slight edge against her Republican challenger, North Carolina House Speaker Thomas Tillis. Pryor, however, appears to be slightly trailing his GOP challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, while Landrieu is in a hard-fought race against Rep. Bill Cassidy that appears headed for a runoff.

Meanwhile, Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn is putting up a surprisingly strong challenge in Georgia Republican David Perdue in the open race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Nunn appears to be trailing Perdue, but she is within striking distance in the red state.

Both Hagan and Nunn, experts say, benefit from the relatively large portion of African-American voters in their respective states - black voters are more reliably Democratic. In Georgia in particular, a growing minority population has helped the Democrats. Still, demographics is just one factor in the races. Both Hagan and Nunn are making strong efforts to take the focus off of Mr. Obama and place it on their competitors' respective shortcomings, political observers in those states say.

With Senate debates in both North Carolina and Georgia Tuesday night, Hagan and Nunn are sure to keep up that strategy.

Tillis is likely to bring up the issue of national security, as he has in recent campaign events and in a recent ad, to associate Hagan with Mr. Obama. Hagan, meanwhile, will likely hammer Tillis over his record on education funding, an issue she has raised repeatedly.

"If they stick strictly to national issues, [Republicans] should have the edge" in North Carolina, Thomas Eamon, a professor at East Carolina University told CBS News. "But if the focus can be turned to the state legislature... it certainly helps Kay Hagan quite a bit."

Hagan's negative campaign strategy may be taking a toll on Tillis' standing. In North Carolina, just 43 percent of registered voters have a favorable view of Mr. Obama, according to an NBC News/Marist poll released this week. Similarly, just 41 percent of registered voters have a favorable view of Hagan, but only 33 percent have a favorable view of Tillis.

"Voters in North Carolina that might be primed to vote against President Obama because they don't like the job he's doing, but Democrats are doing an effective job so far of driving up Tom Tillis' negatives," Gonzales said.

Meanwhile, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the Hagan campaign has tailored some of her campaign messaging for North Carolina's black voters, who comprise about 22 percent of the state's voting population. For instance, one ad that targets black voters criticizes Tillis on education but also slams the GOP for supporting stricter voter ID laws.

Similar efforts are taking place in Georgia, the Journal reported, where African-Americans make up about 30 percent of voters. Three largely African-American counties, for instance, will allow early voting on a Sunday this year, which should help get "souls to the polls" -- a get-out-the-vote effort to bring black voters straight from church to the voting booth.

"If the Democrats can increase African-American turnout for an off-year election so that blacks make up about 30 percent of voters, and if Nunn can get 30 percent of the white vote, then she's got the numbers to win," Emory University professor Merle Black told CBS News.

The Republican Party is making its own efforts to reach out to African-American voters, charging that Democrats have "squandered the black vote."

"Republicans have consistently been working hard to ensure black voters are armed with the facts, along with offering alternative solutions that actually address the community's concerns," Orlando Watson, the Republican National Committee's Communications Director for Black Media, said in a statement.

Still, like Hagan, Nunn isn't relying entirely on traditional Democratic constituencies to get her to the finish line.

"Michelle Nunn is running a very aggressive campaign in which she's trying to make Perdue un-electable because of his past behavior as a CEO," Black said.

More recently, she's been able to turn the tables on Perdue after he tried to attack the foundation she once led. Perdue's campaign ran an ad that suggested the Points of Light foundation -- a group founded by former President George H.W. Bush -- funded organizations with terrorist ties. The ad has been debunked, and Nunn has used the opportunity to question Perdue's integrity.