BRUNSWICK, Ohio — Mitt Romney is trying to do something that Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party's 2008 presidential nominee, could not — shore up enough support among the rural, blue-collar voters in such Rust Belt states as Pennsylvania and Ohio to win the White House.
The former Massachusetts governor chased after those voters over the Father's Day weekend as part of a six-state bus tour in which he bought a meatball hoagie at a gas station outside Philadelphia. He also tested the axiom that the way to a person's heart is through his stomach by serving pancakes to hungry voters in Cleveland suburbs.
Along with Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania are the electoral battlegrounds that analysts say have been the key to the past three elections. If Republicans can win two of the three, they should find their path to the White House.
Ohio traditionally has been the easier win for the GOP among those two Northern states, but new polling putting Mr. Romney within striking distance in Pennsylvania has Republicans thinking they might be able to sweep all three.
Christopher P. Borrick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., said Republicans dominated the 2010 elections in Pennsylvania and the party has been able to reverse some of the losses in party registration it experienced at the end of the past decade.
"I think that Romney has some potential to make some headway among suburban Philadelphia voters who are fiscally conservative and not very enamored with the president's performance on the economy and budget matters," Mr. Borrick said.
The blue-collar Rust Belt region has always been skeptical of Mr. Obama. He lost those voters to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary race after famously calling such voters in Pennsylvania "bitter," saying "they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations."
The words about immigration might have been foreshadowing this year's election. Mr. Obama announced Friday that he was halting deportations of most young illegal immigrants. How that plays in Ohio and Pennsylvania could be critical to determining the president's re-election.
"It makes me furious," Denise Paolucci, a 52-year-old nurse from Ravenna, Ohio, said at the Brunswick event. She said that illegal immigrants from Mexico tried to kidnap her two granddaughters.
"Why should our children be put aside for illegal immigrants, and our grandkids?" said Cheryl Goodson, a 64-year-old from Brunswick.
But for Mr. Romney, the issue is complicated as he tries to cement his support among conservatives in this part of the country who oppose anything they deem to be amnesty, even as he tries to narrow Mr. Obama's large lead with Hispanic voters elsewhere.
He and his aides repeatedly dodged direct questions over the weekend about whether the nominee would overturn Mr. Obama's directive, instead saying they want to work on a broad immigration solution.
Despite the disruption, Mr. Romney stuck with the basic stump speech that helped power him through the bruising GOP primary contests. At various campaign stops, he said Mr. Obama has failed to deliver on the "hope and change" he promised four years ago and now just wants to change the subject.
"The people of America recognize that whether you think he's a nice guy or you don't think he's a nice guy, one thing you know is he's been a disappointment. He hasn't gotten this economy going the way he said he would," Mr. Romney said at a campaign stop in Cromwell, Pa., on Saturday.
He repeated the message all weekend before vowing to foster a healthier economic environment by repealing the president's health care overhaul, reducing federal regulations and expanding energy production, in particular by building a pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast that Mr. Obama has delayed and which environmentalists in the Democratic base oppose absolutely.
While polls show Mr. Obama leading slightly in Pennsylvania and Ohio, both campaigns are making these states priorities.
Mr. Obama formally launched his campaign here and returned to Cleveland last week for a high-profile economic speech that his campaign cast as a chance to stem the flow of bad news that followed the most recent jobs report, which showed that the national unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 percent.
History suggests that Ohio is a must-win for Mr. Romney: No Republican ever has won the presidency without winning the Buckeye State.
George W. Bush won the state in 2000 and 2004, defeating Al Gore and John Kerry of Massachusetts, respectively. Mr. Obama turned the tide here by winning the state in 2008.
The political dynamic, though, is further complicated by the state's unemployment rate having dropped consistently over the past year. Last year, Democrats showed their political muscle by passing a referendum that reversed a law backed by Mr. Romney that would have curtailed collective-bargaining rights for 360,000 public employees.
Mr. Romney has some heavier lifting to do in Pennsylvania, where no Republican presidential hopeful has won since George H.W. Bush captured it in 1988. Observers, though, say the political environment has shifted dramatically during the first term of the Obama administration.
Stuart Stevens, a top Romney adviser, said the election will be a referendum on Mr. Obama's handling of the economy and that his boss has an opportunity to make inroads with more middle-class voters who have fallen on tough times.
"Every re-election is an MRI of the president's record, and it is hard to find anybody who voted for McCain who is planning to vote for Obama, and there is a very large group of people out there who voted for Obama who are open to voting for Mitt Romney," he said.
Asked to handicap the race, Jim Schick, of Conneaut, Ohio, predicted that Mr. Romney will win his state because young voters are not as excited as they were about Mr. Obama in 2008 and because the economy has put many middle-class and independent-minded voters up for grabs.
"I think it is going to be those four or five more unemployment reports that come out, and I think that is going to be the biggest thing in this election," the 52-year-old said.
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