Changing Iowa political landscape challenges Obama re-election efforts

President will have a campaign rally today at Kirkwood Community College

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Officially, President Obama will have a campaign rally today at Kirkwood Community College to talk about tax reform and growing a middle-class economy.

Unofficially, the president is making his second foray into Cedar Rapids this year because “he knows that he’s in trouble in Iowa and this is a key battleground state,” said Gov. Terry Branstad.

The fifth-term Republican has some experience in campaigns, but less partisan political observers tend to agree that Obama is coming to Iowa — again — out of necessity.

In 2008, Obama won Iowa in the precinct caucuses and in the general election.

“Times have certainly changed,” said University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle. Democrats still support Obama, “but with markedly less enthusiasm than 2008.”

Obama’s frequent visits — four this year and five more by his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden — are attempts to excite the base in the state that launched the first-term Illinois senator on the road to the White House in 2008, adds Donna Hoffman, chairwoman of the University of Northern Iowa political science department.

“Obama is counting on its strong organization in Iowa and an economy that is better than average to give him the edge in the state, come November,” she said.

Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, said he hasn’t seen any drop-off in enthusiasm from four years ago, noting tickets for Obama’s visit were gone in less than 24 hours and the local campaign office is “overflowing with volunteers,” he said.

“There’s no question that the president believes he has a great story to tell in Iowa about strengthening the economy and the importance to the campaign to win Iowa in November,” Olson said.

He chalks up the frequent visits to the relatively even divide between Democrats and Republicans in Iowa.

“Iowa is a purple state. We have a Republican governor, Republican House, Democratic Senate,” Olson said. “It’s not any reflection on the president. We are a state with a lot of no-party voters.”

However, Tom Szold, the Republican National Committee’s Iowa spokesman, said the growing number of Iowans registered as Republicans reflects disillusionment with Obama’s policies and promises.

The latest report from the Secretary of State’s Office shows 11,516 more Iowans registered as Republicans at the end of June than in May. That increases the GOP advantage over Democrats to 21,378 voters.

UNI political scientist Chris Larimer said the changing voter-registration pattern and frequent Obama visits speak to the uncertainty of the election and voters.

“Polls indicate many voters, particularly young voters, are not all that enthusiastic about voting,” he said. “Coupled with a static economy, the race is coming down to who can excite folks to get to the polls.”

The UI’s Hagle said that for Obama it’s a matter of stopping voters from moving away from him.

Neither Obama nor challenger Mitt Romney need to win Iowa to win the election, said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. Iowa has symbolic importance, though.

“The Iowa caucuses gave Obama a tremendous boost to winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, so losing Iowa in 2012 would generate a lot of negative media commentary,” she said.

Similarly, she said, Romney carrying Iowa “would not only be embarrassing for the Democrats, but also give a boost to Republicans.”

Romney has to make a case for himself, too, Hagle said. “We are no gimme for him, either.”

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