COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (AP) — Mitt Romney tells voters in small towns that he planted alfalfa on his uncle's farm as a teenager. And Barack Obama doesn't hesitate to remind people in such far-flung places that his mother grew up in Kansas.
So go the nostalgic pitches as each of the presidential candidates tries to connect with rural voters — and convince them that only he can jump-start a struggling economy.
Both campaigns expect Romney to win the majority of the voters in these reliably Republican places, but Obama's team is trying to keep the margin as narrow as it was in 2008, when he lost rural voters by just 8 percentage points to John McCain. Romney's team, in turn, is looking to run up the score, perhaps as high as the 19 percentage point advantage that George W. Bush enjoyed among rural voters in his 2004 re-election bid.
"Romney's going to win the rurals. The question is by how much," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist who advised McCain's rural outreach. "If Romney cannot boost rural turnout, he's going to lose. If Mitt Romney's going to win the White House, it will be the rural vote that pushes him over the top."
Even the Democratic president's top aides acknowledge the hurdle he faces with these voters.
"Democrats have for some time been challenged in how they communicate directly with rural America," Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, said recently.
And yet, the fight for these voters is close, worrying Republicans and buoying Democrats.
The most recent Associated Press-GfK poll of voters who identified as living in a rural area backed Romney 47 percent to Obama's 45 percent.
That helps explain why Romney had breakfast with farmers in Council Bluffs last week and is heading on a small-town bus tour from New Hampshire to Iowa over the weekend. It also sheds light on why Obama recently gave interviews with local television anchors to highlight a 32-page report on his administration's accomplishments for rural voters.
Rural voters tend to be more socially conservative, more religious and more focused on what strategists call the core values of a candidate than voters who live in urban or suburban regions. They also tend to be overrepresented in the military; the White House says rural America represents 17 percent of the country's population but accounts for 44 percent of those in uniform.
Like everywhere else, the economy is dominating concerns in rural America.
It remains an open question whether Romney's Mormon faith or Obama's race — he's the first president who is black — could prove disqualifying for some voters in rural areas.
Sabrina Matthews, 36, is a customer service representative from Marion, Va., population 5,968 in the 2010 census, who supports Obama.
"I feel like he just knows where people like me came from," she said of the president who often talks of humble beginnings. "He started out with nothing. To get where he's at, he didn't start out with an advantage."
That, Matthews says, stands in contrast to Romney, the multimillionaire founder of a venture capital firm.
"I do not like him at all. I don't know him personally but the things that he says, says he's for the big companies and he's not for the little people," she said. "He's always had things handed to him. He started out rich. He is still rich. I'm a middle-class person. I work really hard for what little I have."
Even so, she isn't optimistic about the president's chances in Virginia, which voted for a Democratic presidential candidate four years ago for the first time since 1964.
"It's the Bible Belt. Unfortunately, and I hate to say this — we should all be above this — but there are prejudiced people here with him being black," she said. "I see the state going for Romney."
To be sure, it isn't as though voters in rural areas are clamoring for Romney.
"Between the two, neither one of them is a conservative Southern Baptist like we are around here," said Kathy Smith, 58, a home caregiver from LaFollette, Tenn. She plans to vote for Romney.
"I do have some qualms about Mormonism, but I'm concentrating on what Romney can do for our economy," she said. "I don't really trust big business people. But maybe in this economy, it might be what we need."
Both sides have steadily courted rural voters, and the attention to them is certain to ramp up between now and the fall.
Obama routinely taps Vice President Joe Biden, the plain-spoken native of hardscrabble Scranton, Pa., to venture into small towns to talk up the administration's efforts to help the economy rebound.
"This is a make-or-break moment in America for America's middle class. It's been losing ground for the last 15 years. It's been hemorrhaging for the last five," Biden said last week in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Four years ago, McCain carried rural voters in national exit polls, 53 percent to Obama's 45 percent. But Obama carried rural voters over McCain in New Hampshire and Colorado, states that the 2012 campaigns see as lynchpins of their strategies.
Obama essentially split the rural vote with McCain in Virginia, North Carolina and Iowa. But the Democrat lost rural voters in other battlegrounds: Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Ohio. That's why Obama's team is redoubling its rural-voter outreach in those states — and why Romney is refusing to cede ground.
In western Iowa, Romney sat down with farmers last week to hear about their livelihoods and concerns about Washington. He listened to their complaints about the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, politely nodding in a diner across from the town square.
"I'm not a farmer myself, as you know," he told his guests. "But as a young guy, as a 15-year-old, I worked on my uncle's ranch in Idaho. We raised corn and alfalfa. Lots of alfalfa."
Just days later, Obama — he was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia and his mother came from Kansas — tried to connect with that same constituency.
"This rural strategy that we put forward ... can make a big difference," he told a California television anchor invited to the White House for an interview. "We're going to keep on working steadily to try to bring about the improvements that need to be made."
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.