Obama hits campaign trail for first time since leaving White House

Oct 19 (Reuters) - Former President Barack Obama returns to the campaign trail on Thursday for the first time since he left the White House, venturing out to support Democrats in two governor's races that could offer a clue about the national mood before next year's midterm elections.

Obama, who has spoken at private party fundraisers but largely steered clear of electoral politics since leaving office in January, will make public appearances on behalf of Democratic candidates in Virginia and New Jersey - the only two states holding off-year elections for governor.

Those Nov. 7 contests will be closely watched to see if Democrats can turn the grassroots resistance to Republican President Donald Trump into electoral wins after falling short earlier this year in four competitive special congressional elections.

RELATED: Obama in post-presidency life

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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with former United States President Barack Obama at a restaurant during Obama's visit to address the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada June 5, 2017. Picture taken June 5, 2017. Prime Minister's Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. President Barack Obama waves after speaking at the Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan, Italy May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Britain's Prince Harry (R) and former U.S. President Barack Obama watch a wheelchair basketball event during the Invictus Games in Toronto, Ontario, Canada September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Former U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he delivers his keynote speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce at the Palais de Congres in Montreal, Quebec, Canada June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Dario Ayala
Sep 28, 2017; Jersey City, NJ, USA; Former U.S. Presidents (from Left) Barack Obama and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton smile during the first round foursomes match of The President's Cup golf tournament at Liberty National Golf Course. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Goalkeepers event in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Elizabeth Shafiroff
Former U.S. President Barack Obama and British businessman Richard Branson sit on a boat during Obama's holiday on Branson's Moskito island, in the British Virgin Islands, in a picture handed out by Virgin on February 7, 2017. Jack Brockway/Virgin Handout via REUTERS FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former U.S. President Barack Obama attend a discussion at the German Protestant Kirchentag in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Argentina's President Mauricio Macri and former U.S. President Barack Obama walk at a golf course in Bella Vista, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina October 7, 2017. Argentine Presidency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama stands onstage after receiving the 2017 Profile in Courage Award during a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., May 7, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Former president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle board Special Air Mission 28000, a Boeing 747 which serves as Air Force One, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Caroline Kennedy presents the 2017 Profile in Courage Award to former U.S. President Barack Obama, as former first lady Michelle Obama looks on, during a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., May 7, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. President Barack Obama greets supporters after speaking at a community event on the Obama Presidential Centre at the South Shore Cultural Centre in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
Former U.S. President Barack Obama (C) meets with youth leaders Kelsey McClear (L) from Loyola University, Ramuel Figueroa (2nd L) from Roosevelt University, pharmacist Dr. Tiffany Brown (3rd L), Max Freedman (3rd R) from University of Chicago, Harish Patel (2ndL) from New America Foundation and Ayanna Watkins (R) from Kenwood High School at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago to discuss strategies for community organization and civic engagement in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with youth leaders at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago to discuss strategies for community organization and civic engagement in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
Former president Barack Obama reacts after addressing staff and guests before boarding Special Air Mission 28000, a Boeing 747 which serves as Air Force One, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) greets former President Barack Obama after being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Former president Barack Obama rallies with New Jersey Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Jim Murphy in Newark, New Jersey, U.S. October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Makela
U.S. President Barack Obama dances with Jill Biden (2nd L) as Britain's Prince Harry (R) and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) watch a wheelchair basketball event at the Invictus Games in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Former U.S. President Barack Obama accompanied by Melinda and Bill Gates speaks at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Goalkeepers event in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Elizabeth Shafiroff
Former U.S. President Barack Obama visits Prambanan Temple in Sleman, Yogyakarta, Indonesia June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Pius Erlangga
Former United States President Barack Obama (2nd L), his wife Michelle (3rd L) along with his daughters Sasha (C) and Malia (2nd R) go rafting while on holiday in Bongkasa Village, Badung Regency, Bali, Indonesia June 26, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Wira Suryantala/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Indonesian President Joko Widodo are seen during their meeting at the Botanical Garden near the presidential palace in Bogor, Indonesia June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adi Weda/Pool
Former United States' President Barack Obama, smiles as he delivers a speech during the Green Economy Summit 2017 in Cordoba province some 740 kilometres Northwestern Buenos Aires, on October 6, 2017. The global fight for clean energy rests with businesses and ordinary people as governments lag behind, experts told an environmental conference in Argentina Friday ahead of a keynote speech by former US president Barack Obama. / AFP PHOTO / Pablo Gasparini (Photo credit should read PABLO GASPARINI/AFP/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 29: Prince Harry, former U.S. President Barack Obama, former Vice President of the U.S. Joe Biden and former second lady of the U.S. Jill Biden pose with competitors from Team USA on day 7 of the Invictus Games 2017 on September 29, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation )
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 29: Former U.S. President Barack Obama greets members of the public on day 7 of the Invictus Games 2017 on September 29, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation )
JERSEY CITY, NJ - SEPTEMBER 28: Captain's Assistant Tiger Woods of the American Team talks to former President of the United States Barack Obama at the first tee during the first round of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on September 28, 2017 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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The race in the political battleground of Virginia, in particular, 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.

In New Jersey, Obama will appear at a campaign event in Newark with Democrat Phil Murphy. Polls show Murphy has a comfortable lead on Republican opponent Kim Guadagno, the state's lieutenant governor, who is hindered by the unpopularity in the state of Trump and Republican Governor Chris Christie.

SEE ALSO: Trump sends mixed signals on bipartisan Obamacare deal

Since leaving the White House, Obama has frequently criticized Trump and Republicans in written statements for efforts to gut his signature healthcare law and roll back his immigration and environmental policies. The campaign appearances will give him a forum to take on Trump directly if he chooses.

The state contests in Virginia and New Jersey, and a special election in December for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, are a preview of next year's congressional elections, when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate's 100 seats will be up for grabs. Republicans currently control both chambers.

(Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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