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Still sunny in 'Obama-land'

Far from mainland "shellacking," Hawaii's Democrats reigned in November.

HONOLULU - As vacation spots go, Hawaii is hard to beat for the Obama family's annual holiday break. Far from the cold of Washington, the president has already enjoyed two rounds of golf and a trip to the beach with his daughters.

But this year's trip carries an added political perk for a president looking to build on the "season of progress" he touted last week as the lame-duck Congress wrapped up:

Hawaii seemed immune from the "shellacking" that felled Democrats across the country in the midterm elections. The Aloha State not only replaced a Republican governor with a Democrat, but it also returned to the president's party a congressional seat the GOP had snared earlier in a special election.

Unlike the president's other home state of Illinois, where a Republican captured his former Senate seat and pre-election polls showed Obama's approval ratings in negative territory, he remains immensely popular in Hawaii.

"This is definitely Obama-land," said Mufi Hannemann, the former Honolulu mayor. "If the president is looking to get away from some of those who beg to differ with his policies, there's no better place for him to go than here."

Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a feisty 72-year-old former congressman who has known Obama since infancy, was elected by a 17-point margin over the sitting lieutenant governor, Duke Aiona. Abercrombie carried 50 of 51 state legislative districts, despite being outspent, including a nearly $2 million campaign investment by the Republican Governors Association.

While conservatives were resurgent elsewhere, one local columnist described Abercrombie as the most liberal Democrat the state had ever elected governor. Abercrombie dismisses the label, attributing his victory more to a philosophy that inspired Obama's 2008 campaign.

"I started my campaign with the words hope and change," Abercrombie said at his office last week. "And it was a conscious and public reference to my support for the president, and the support of the people who were backing me for the president."

Some Democrats on the mainland distanced themselves from Obama, and even in gubernatorial races, Republicans in key states sought to link their Democratic foes to him. In Hawaii, however, Obama recorded television ads for both Abercrombie and Colleen Hanabusa, who defeated Republican Charles Djou to reclaim the congressional seat Abercrombie had relinquished to run for governor.

Aiona said his campaign's polling showed a close gubernatorial race most of the way, until Abercrombie's ad featuring Obama aired.

"His popularity in Hawaii was fairly strong," Aiona said. "When you have someone of that stature related to you, you have an affinity for that person."

Island politicos point out that Hawaii, removed as it is by thousands of miles of ocean, sometimes misses the political waves rolling across the mainland. The Democratic chair of the House Budget Committee, John Spratt of South Carolina, was an electoral casualty of the anti-spending, anti-government tea party activism that propelled the GOP's gains. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, chose to not even seek reelection.

But in Hawaii, where the tea party movement has made little traction, Democrat Daniel K. Inouye, 86, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, won reelection with 75 percent of the vote.

While acknowledging that Hawaii has traditionally been a Democratic state, officials say Obama could learn some lessons from the local party as he looks to recast his presidency for the second half of his term and the 2012 campaign.

Hannemann, a centrist who lost to Abercrombie in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, suggests that Obama would do well to reflect the state's "Aloha spirit."

"We have our differences, but we live basically in harmony," Hannemann said. "... I think the president can take that lesson every time he comes here - how different people, different religions, different backgrounds somehow get along."

Seeking consensus doesn't mean rolling over, Abercrombie says. He is among those calling for a more combative style from Obama, saying the president needs to resurrect the "give them hell" approach of Harry S. Truman.