Obama’s 2008 magic past, Iowa all-out battleground

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DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa magic that launched Barack Obama to the presidency four years ago has all but faded.

Soured by the direction of the nation and its economy, Iowa has drifted away from Obama since his 2008 caucus victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton made him the Democratic front-runner. And while he carried the state in the general election by a comfortable margin that year, polls this year have shown voters narrowly preferring Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who plans to wage his own major effort in Iowa.

Today, the Democrat who emerged Cinderella-like with a hope-filled message four years ago is sharply attacking Romney’s economic credentials and his ability to grasp voters’ everyday concerns.

Obama’s visit Thursday to blue-collar Newton, Iowa, and his Des Moines campaign rally near where Romney once declared that corporations are people, underscored the president’s own vulnerability with working-class voters and his effort to identify with the middle class.

While offering only six of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, how Iowa voters ultimately judge Obama is expected to be an important factor in the race.

“Last time it was a lot more exciting. It was a new thing,” said Nancy Bobo, a Des Moines Obama volunteer and one of his earliest Iowa backers in 2008. “Today, we’re all just very serious.”

Obama was visiting a former Maytag Corp. appliance plant in Newton, a town devastated by the plant’s closing in 2005. The plant now houses TPI Composites, a wind-turbine blade manufacturer.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has made the struggling economy the centerpiece of his campaign. But Obama can point to comparatively low 5.1 percent unemployment in Iowa, where stable financial services and strong agriculture sectors buoyed the economy while manufacturing has struggled to rebound.

Obama’s Des Moines rally, his first in Iowa since announcing his candidacy for re-election, is symbolically set for the Iowa State Fairgrounds, within steps of where Romney declared last year that “corporations are people.”

Romney made the comment as he argued against raising taxes as a way of shoring up Social Security and Medicare.

Members of the audience interrupted, calling for increased taxes on corporations, and Romney responded: “Corporations are people, my friend. … Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.”

The comment has been used by opponents to characterize Romney, a former private equity firm executive, as more comfortable in the boardroom than the shop floor.

Obama’s campaign has emphasized episodes in which Romney’s former firm closed plants and laid off workers, and has aired a stinging TV ad on the subject in Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Obama himself has struggled to attract blue-collar voters, keys to winning struggling swing working-class regions such as southeast Ohio, western Pennsylvania and rural Iowa. Newton is the seat of Jasper County, Iowa, where unemployment was 7.1 percent in April, higher than Iowa’s average but down sharply from last winter.

While Iowa is known for its first-in-the-nation caucuses, it also is a coveted general election state, despite its small electoral total. Democrat Al Gore carried the state by less than a percentage point in 2000, followed by Republican George W. Bush’s 2-point victory in 2004.

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