Back in Iowa, Obama reaches for caucus magic
WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — He is looking for the magic again in all these coffee shops and diners. On the farm pasture scorched by drought, on the state fairgrounds where he got the beer and the pork chop he can't stop talking about. In the school library and the local bar, President Barack Obama is coming back to Iowans as if he wants to reconnect with old friends, telling them he needs one more shot.
"This is really where our movement began — here in Iowa," Obama tells people jammed into a small middle-school gym in Marshalltown. "We had a conversation about how we move our country in a direction where everybody has opportunity, where everybody has got a shot."
"And we know that journey is not done yet."
Coatless and tieless, an upbeat Obama has spent three days in Iowa this week, his longest sustained campaigning in any one state yet, as he looks to win six of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
He has been speaking and drinking and eating his way through the state — "Who else wants one?" he yells to a small group of onlookers at a sno cone stand in Denison — because in Iowa, politics is all about winning over voters one by one, by word of mouth. Obama's higher personal favorability ratings over Republican Mitt Romney also could be a big plus in places like Iowa — especially at a time when voters in the most competitive states are seeing a slew of negative ads daily and as the Republican challenger works to undercut the president's strength.
Four years after the voters here sent him on his way to the White House, he's drawing loud and enthusiastic crowds; a man in the Waterloo one shouts, "Four more beers!" resurrecting the cheer from a night earlier at the fair when Obama bought a round. And he seems remarkably at ease for an incumbent president facing a spirited challenge at a time of 8.3 percent unemployment.
Obama, it seems, has been everywhere.
He dropped by the Coffee Connection in Knoxville, where he chatted up the owner, a Republican running for local office. He hit the gym at Aspen Active off Fleur Drive in Des Moines, near his airport hotel. He bought a Bud Lite at a bar in college town Cedar Falls. In Cascade, Obama walked into a high school library where teachers were getting ready for the upcoming school year. "What do you want me to know?" he asked, opening up their discussion about education policy for questions.
He made a surprise visit to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, a must-stop for any politician looking for votes. "I still have pictures of me and Sasha at the fair," Obama told one of the fair's organizers after buying an admission ticket and picking up a navy blue state fair baseball cap, emblazoned with this year's slogan, "Nothing Compares." He took a picture with the fair queen, ate a pork chop with his hands and drank a Bud Lite, all while a TV crew trails him for footage in an upcoming campaign ad.
In Dubuque, first lady Michelle Obama joined Obama at a campaign rally for the first time in months. Mrs. Obama asked him if he got a "fried Twinkie" at the state fair and then vouched for him, calling him the "son of a mother who struggled" and the grandson of a woman who watched as men she trained were promoted ahead of her.
"Your president knows what it means when a family struggles," Mrs. Obama said — a not-so-subtle counter to Romney's recent efforts to question Obama's character.
It wasn't all personal touch for the Obamas. There was policy, too, from the president.
He traveled to a parched corn farm in Missouri Valley with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former two-term Iowa governor, to promise to take steps to help farmers. On the front yard of the McIntosh family farm, Obama said the USDA would buy up tens of millions of dollars in pork and chicken to help farmers get through the drought. "We're not just talking about a few strips of bacon here," Obama said.
At a farm in Haverhill, the president gazed at massive white wind turbines rotating in the distance, urging Congress to pass a tax credit for producers of wind energy, an approach that Romney opposes.
Yet, for all the seeming familiarity of this trip, Obama's second dance has at times seemed distant, a big black bus marked with the presidential seal leading a trail of dark Chevrolet Suburbans, vans and police cruisers.
Onlookers watch from their front yards, in front of Casey's General Stores or Dollar Generals, on street corners and from folding chairs. The crowds are rarely rude — this is Iowa after all — but often give off a look of ambivalence, like an electorate taking stock of their options, trying to figure out which way to go.
Iowa voters know Romney from last winter's Iowa caucuses, when he lost to Rick Santorum by a razor-thin margin, and from his first presidential bid in 2008. But they know Obama perhaps better than any group of voters in America.
Still, some Obama backers say they're worried.
Says Justin Owen, a 31-year-old farm equipment salesman from Boone who brought his family to a rally this week: "The ones who do support the president are very quiet about it."
Others are more confident.
"I'd almost bet my house that in two months you're going to see Iowa" in Obama's column, says Cecilia Parks, a retired school teacher from Anamosa, who cheered Obama during Wednesday's rally in Dubuque. "Obama still has the grassroots here in Iowa. I think in the next couple of months, you're going to see a real surge."