JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill was absent as President Barack Obama came to St. Louis on Tuesday to raise money for his re-election campaign. But she was paired with the president on the TV screen as a Republican challenger began running ads highlighting the ties between McCaskill and Obama.
McCaskill's office said the senator's schedule didn't allow her to make either of the two private fundraisers Obama was attending in Missouri. But her absence also emphasized the political choice McCaskill faces as she seeks re-election in 2012: Does she stand beside Obama as she did in his first presidential campaign, or does she separate herself on the theory that she stands a better chance of winning on her own?
A McCaskill spokesman says she continues to support the president. Republicans also appear to believe their odds are improved by associating McCaskill with Obama, who narrowly lost the state in 2008.
A day after declaring his Senate candidacy, St. Louis-area businessman John Brunner said Tuesday that he was launching his first television ad. The commercial shows a photo of Obama and McCaskill together while Brunner denounces Washington's "uncontrolled spending, massive debt, and regulations that cost jobs."
Brunner spokesman John Hancock declined to say how widely the ad was running, describing it only as "a substantial buy." Brunner, who has served as chairman of the health care products company Vi-Jon Inc., has financed the start of his campaign with his own money.
The two other Republican Senate candidates -- former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and U.S. Rep.Todd Akin -- also have highlighted McCaskill's ties to Obama. McCaskill was an early supporter of Obama during his presidential campaign and has remained an ally in the Senate, backing some of his most high-profile initiatives, such as the 2009 stimulus act and the 2010 health care law.
Akin distributed a campaign email Tuesday referring to "the Obama-McCaskill team" and contended McCaskill "has sought to hide her allegiance to the president's failed policies by remaining in Washington today."
Steelman also took an apparent dig at McCaskill's absence, posting on her Twitter account: "One difference between a politician and a leader? A leader sticks by their friends even when they are unpopular."
Recent public opinion polls have shown Obama's national approval percentage in the low 40s.
McCaskill spokesman Trevor Kincaid said McCaskill welcomes the president to St. Louis, even though she was not there to do so personally.
"She was, unfortunately, unable to attend this evening's events due to Senate business and a previously scheduled fundraiser of her own," Kincaid said. But "she hopes she's able to join him the next time he comes to Missouri."
A similar scenario played out in Missouri last year, when Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan was running for U.S. Senate against Republican Rep. Roy Blunt. Carnahan was not present for a March 2010 Obama fundraiser in St. Louis that benefitted McCaskill and the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. Carnahan's office explained that she was instead in Washington, D.C., for state government business. When Carnahan appear with Obama at a campaign fundraiser later that summer, Blunt used the video of the event against her in his own Senate campaign ads. Blunt easily defeated Carnahan the 2010 elections.
McCaskill's absence from Obama's fundraisers "may be a mix of her being busy and self-preservation," said David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"If President Obama's not too popular, she may want to distance herself from him," Kimball said. "It seems like a pretty common dance when an unpopular president comes to Missouri and the local politicians of his party find reasons not to appear on stage with him."
But Kimball added: "It may be simply that she is busy."
The first of Obama's Missouri fundraisers was occurring at a St. Louis hotel, and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon was among those planning to attend, said Nixon's campaign.
The other event was being held at the home of Tom Carnahan, a wind energy developer who is the brother of Robin Carnahan and Democratic U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, of St. Louis. The Lost Creek Wind Farm, which was developed by Tom Carnahan, received $107 million under a federal stimulus act program that entitled renewable energy projects to receive cash payments, instead of tax credits as had been previously available from the federal government.