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.
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