- Associated Press - Sunday, June 24, 2012

CARROLL, Iowa — These are good times in much of Iowa, partly due to a booming farm economy and a May jobless rate — 5.1 percent — that would be the envy of most parts of the country. Crop prices are strong, land values are soaring and farm incomes are up dramatically in recent years. The only cloud on the horizon? The threat of drought, which has sent ripples of anxiety through corn and soybean country.

The irony? This prosperous state may be crucial in deciding who will win the presidency of a country still reeling from recession.

This small state holds big sway in the race for the White House. President Obama and Mitt Romney, deadlocked in recent polls, are blanketing the airwaves early with TV ads, scrambling for the state’s precious six electoral votes.

Iowa was magical for Mr. Obama four years ago; his win in the first-in-the-nation caucus propelled him to the front of the Democratic pack at the start of primary season and set him on his way to the White House. Four years later, the luster seems to have faded and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has made a habit of saying: “We launched him and we can sink him.”

And yet, this state hasn’t been particularly lucky for Mr. Romney. In 2008, his $10 million campaign here fizzled with an embarrassing second-place finish, marking the beginning of the end of his truncated presidential bid. Then this past January, a single-digit win turned into a double-digit loss after a recount.

This fall, no one expects a rerun of Mr. Obama’s 10 percent cruise to victory in 2008 over Republican John McCain. The contest is likely to be similar to Iowa’s razor-thin margins in the two contests before: Al Gore in 2000 and George W. Bush in 2004 both won by less than a percentage point.

Registered independents will be pivotal. They outnumber registered Republicans or Democrats in Iowa.

How they all view the state’s prosperity will be critical, though some are skeptical it will translate into good will because of a widespread antipathy toward federal government — which, in turn, is personified by Mr. Obama.

“Just like the general that’s on a horse running in front of the troops, you’re the first one who gets shot in the war,” said Rick Hunsaker, director of a regional planning agency. “I think the president takes a lot of heat. I just don’t know what that’s going to mean in the voting booth.

Art Neu, a former lieutenant governor and local lawyer — and a Republican who credits Mr. Obama with doing “an exceptional job given what he stepped into” — said that in today’s environment the president could even take a hit if the dry weather turns into a drought this summer.

“If the economy suffers because of the crops, I think that’s going to go against Mr. Obama,” he said. “It’s not his fault. When people are mad, when things are bad, they strike out. It’s not rational.”

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