By KASIE HUNT and THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney is pushing to win a band of Midwestern states that voted for President Barack Obama four years ago and that generally have a long history of backing Democrats in White House elections.
Romney faces hurdles and advantages in each state but his approach will leave Obama no choice but to spend time and money defending states he carried in 2008. That Romney is even making a making a play for the arc of states from Pennsylvania to Iowa also suggests his path to the 270 electoral votes he will need to win the White House may be widening.
"It's sending a pretty clear message that the places the Democrats have taken for granted, they can't take for granted this time," said Rich Beeson, Romney's political director.
Before arriving in Iowa on Monday, Romney stopped in Janesville, Wis., an economically struggling, one-time manufacturing hub in the southern part of the state. Unemployment there is 9 percent, well above the state average of 6.8 percent for May. The national average is 8.2 percent.
He toured Monterey Mills, a unionized company that makes fabric for paint rollers and the stuffing for toys like Winnie the Pooh.
"The people of this country are having a hard time. These are challenging times for Americans, and because of his failed record his campaign is having a hard time deciding what to talk about," Romney said, the excited crowd sitting amid packages of fabric the company uses to make its paint rollers.
Wisconsin, which has not backed a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan in 1984, presents a new opportunity for Romney, almost exclusively due to Gov. Scott Walker's triumph two weeks ago in a contentious recall election. Walker's win, after an 18-month fight over public employee union rights, gives Republicans hope. It also gives Romney a corps of well-trained organizers and reams of voter data to put to use.
But he still has his work cut out for him. Voters said in exit polls after the June 5 election that they trust Obama more to address the nation's economic struggles — the chief argument for Romney, a former businessman — and the interests of the middle class.
Obama also continues to have the advantage in urban areas, especially among minority voters, which each state except Iowa has.
"Philadelphia is a gigantic amount of the vote," said Tad Devine, a top aide to Democratic presidential nominees in 2000 and 2004. "Pennsylvania is one of those places that may stay competitive longer, but it's going to be really hard for Romney to put together Pennsylvania if Philly turns out the way it can turn out."
Iowa, however, has trended Republican since Obama won it in 2008. Like nearly every state in the arc, Iowans turned down Democratic candidates for governor in favor of pro-business Republicans. Iowa voters dumped three state Supreme Court justices to protest their decision allowing gay marriage. Romney's campaign also spent the year before the state's leadoff nominating caucuses laying the foundation in this true swing state for a general election campaign. Iowa has voted Republican in every other presidential election since 1988.
Obama, meanwhile, enjoys a special Iowa connection, having won the 2008 Democratic caucuses in Cinderella fashion. He's already built a robust ground operation. He has spent nearly $5 million on advertising in Iowa, and has spent no money in Wisconsin since early in the year.
Although Romney aides say there is no Midwestern lynchpin, they argue that a competitive streak in Wisconsin is good for them in the entire region.
On Monday, he followed in the footsteps of Republican George W. Bush, who campaigned hard for re-election in Iowa in part by seeking to connect with working-class voters along the Mississippi River who haven't warmed to Obama.
Romney headed south along the Mississippi to Davenport, Iowa, aboard the Spirit of Dubuque, and into the heart of the region where Bush worked to trim Democratic margins in his 2004 re-election and narrow win in Iowa. The trip was part of a five-day bus tour that is taking Romney across six states: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and, on Tuesday, Michigan.