Analysis: Tough fight for Obama in 2012 in some key states

WASHINGTON Wed Jul 20, 2011 3:37pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama bucked decades-old electoral trends to win the White House in 2008, taking nine states that had supported Republican George W. Bush four years earlier.

With Americans deeply worried about the economy, even some Democratic activists have scant expectations that he can carry all the nine states in next year's presidential election.

Party campaigners and pollsters say the chances now look slim for a second consecutive triumph in states like Indiana and North Carolina, where no Democratic presidential candidate had won since 1964 until Obama took them in 2008.

"No one is counting on Indiana," one Democratic activist said.

Without a strong economic upturn, Obama is also likely to face tough fights in other close-run states that have been hit hard by the downturn.

A leading Democratic activist said that, while there will be a lot of campaigning in Ohio, he could also envision a scenario in which the party wrote the state off early in order to focus elsewhere.

A Quinnipiac University poll in May put Obama in a virtual tie -- at 41-39 percent -- in Ohio with an unnamed Republican opponent. Obama's numbers could drop in the state once a Republican rival emerges and communicates to voters.

Republicans plan to capitalize on voter unhappiness about the economy, and feel the mood in the state had shifted sharply from 2008.

"He (Obama) had a historic election. It was historic and unprecedented. It can only be historic and unprecedented once," said Rex Elsass, president of the Ohio-based Strategy Group for Media, a consulting firm that works for Republican candidates.

COLORADO FIGHT

In Colorado, another state that had tended to back Republicans before 2008, Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper said Obama will have to fight hard to win again.

"It depends on who his opponent was. I think it'd be a very close battle. He'd have a hard time," Hickenlooper told Politico this week, citing concerns about high unemployment.

Democratic strategists have said that keeping Colorado in Obama's column is a priority next year.

Unemployment in Indiana is 8.2 percent. The jobless rate in Florida, which Obama won by 3 percent, is among the country's worst, at 10.6 percent, and in Ohio, where Obama scored a 5 percent victory, 8.6 percent of workers are out of jobs.

Democratic party and campaign officials insist they are prepared to fight everywhere and will extend the party's reach into states that backed Republican John McCain in 2008, such as Arizona, where they hope to appeal to Hispanic voters, who tend to support Democrats because they support immigration reform.

"We are absolutely committed to competing across the country," Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters on a conference call last week.

In industrial Midwestern states such as Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, Democrats are banking on convincing voters that Obama's auto industry bailout saved jobs.

"Every indication is that he will win Indiana. No one can say for sure but I believe that he will win our state," said Robin Winston, former chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party who is now a political consultant.

Party activists also note that Obama has huge advantages as the incumbent -- a sitting president has unparalleled media attention and name recognition -- and fundraising prowess to finance a widespread organizing effort. Obama's campaign war chest is widely expected to hit $1 billion.

But the political landscape has changed dramatically from 2008, when Obama's campaign benefited from voter weariness with the Iraq war, now winding down, a desire for change after eight years under the Republican Bush and unhappiness with the weak economy, which has not significantly improved.

Republicans rallied around opposition to Obama policies and, energized by the conservative Tea Party movement, made big gains in the 2010 midterm elections in states where the Democrat had won notable victories.

And Democrats made little or no electoral headway in states where Republicans had been strong.

"One thing is certain; Republicans have proven every one of these states is winnable for our 2012 nominee," Rick Wiley, political director of the Republican National Committee, said in a memo to supporters this week, about the nine states that backed Obama in 2008 after going Republican in 2004.

In Indiana, Republicans picked up a U.S. Senate seat and two House of Representatives seats in 2010, regained control of the state House and increased their majority in the state Senate.

In Ohio, Republicans took a Senate seat, the governorship and 13 of the state's 18 seats in the House.

(Additional reporting by Kim Dixon in Washington and Eric Johnson in Chicago; editing by Alistair Bell and xxx)

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