By John Whitesides
(Reuters) - Former President Barack Obama, back on the campaign trail on Thursday for the first time since he left the White House, urged voters in New Jersey to reject the "politics of division" by supporting Democrats in next month's state elections.
Without mentioning Republican President Donald Trump by name, Obama said New Jersey could send a powerful signal about the type of politics it wants by voting for Democrat Phil Murphy in the Nov. 7 governor race.
"You're going to send a message to the country and send a message to the world that we are rejecting a politics of division, we are rejecting a politics of fear, that we are embracing a politics that says everybody counts," Obama told a cheering crowd in Newark that chanted: "Four more years."
It was the first of two public appearances by Obama on Thursday on behalf of Democratic candidates for governor. He will appear later in Richmond, Virginia. New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states holding elections for governor this year.
Those contests will be closely watched to see if Democrats can turn the grassroots resistance to Trump into electoral wins after falling short earlier this year in four competitive special congressional elections.
The two governor's races, and a special election in December for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, could be a preview of next year's congressional elections, when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 of the Senate's 100 seats will be up for grabs. Republicans currently control both chambers.
Obama made his comments just hours after former President George W. Bush, a Republican, also took a thinly veiled swipe at Trump with a speech decrying "bullying and prejudice" while defending immigrants and trade. [L2N1MU1XD]
Trump's combative style and inflammatory comments have led to frequent controversy and stoked political tensions.
Since leaving the White House in January, Obama has frequently been forced to defend his record as Trump and Republicans have tried to gut his signature healthcare law and roll back his immigration and environmental policies.
But in New Jersey, Obama focused on urging supporters to turn out their friends and families to vote. Democrats hope Obama can help bring some of the young, minority and infrequent voters who powered his two elections to the White House out to the polls in off-year elections.
'CAN'T TAKE ELECTION FOR GRANTED'
Opinion polls show Murphy, a former investment banker and U.S. ambassador to Germany, has a comfortable lead on Republican opponent Kim Guadagno, the New Jersey lieutenant governor, who is hindered by the unpopularity in the state of Trump and Republican Governor Chris Christie.
But Obama said no one should assume a victory is in the cards, making an indirect reference to Democrat Hillary Clinton's surprise loss last year in the presidential race.
"You can't take this election or any election for granted. I don't know if you all noticed that, but you can't take any election for granted," he said.
Obama will appear on Thursday night in the political battleground of Virginia, which is viewed as a potential bellwether. Opinion polls show a close contest between Democrat Ralph Northam, the state's lieutenant governor, and Republican Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who has been endorsed by Trump.
Obama carried Virginia in both 2008 and 2012, and Democrat Hillary Clinton won the state over Trump by 5 percentage points in 2016. Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, appeared recently with Northam, while Vice President Mike Pence campaigned in southwest Virginia's coal country for Gillespie.
(Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)