Inside Obama’s Swing State Charm Tour

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event at Rollins College, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 in Winter Park, Fla. Obama is campaigning in Florida and Northern Virginia today.

Winter Park, Florida

For a few minutes, it almost feels like 2008 again inside the air-conditioned gym. The raucous crowd is chanting and cheering and slinging I love you‘s. Before Barack Obama revs up his speech, they’re singing happy birthday to the President, who turns 51 on Saturday. “If I’d have known you guys were going to sing, I’d have brought a cake,” Obama tells the crowd of 2,400 at Rollins College in the Orlando suburbs. “I’d have made a wish. It probably would have had to do with electoral votes,” Obama adds. “We’re in Florida. It wouldn’t have been a bad birthday present.”

Outside in the August heat, Florida doesn’t look quite so friendly. Sign-toting protesters occupy scorched pavement in the bland suburban sprawl. The Sunshine State’s unemployment rate is 8.6%. Voters aren’t convinced it’s getting better. To carry Florida, one of the battlegrounds that will decide the presidential election, Obama will have to overcome a grim economy and a yawning fundraising deficit. A president hasn’t won re-election with a national unemployment rate above 8% since the Great Depression. Which is why, with Election Day just 95 days away, Obama’s campaign is in the midst of a swing-state charm offensive that puts the candidate in front of the narrow slice of voters that count most.

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After hitting Ohio on Wednesday, Obama continued the blitz on Thursday with stops in two of the country’s most pivotal markets. Obama’s visit to Orlando and Northern Virginia was a bid to shore up his standing with critical demographic groups, including women, Hispanics and young voters. With a bleak economic outlook, and without fresh policies to make things better, Obama almost seems to be betting that he can scrap his way to re-election on likability alone.

It could work. A poll jointly released Tuesday by the New York Times, CBS News and Quinnipiac University pegged Obama’s lead in Florida and Ohio at six points apiece, 11 in Pennsylvania. The economy was voters’ top-ranked concern in each state; the President’s cushion was provided by his stronger personal connection with voters. Obama earned at least a 50% favorability rating from voters in each state, and between 55% and 58% when voters were asked whether Obama “cares about the needs and problems of people like you.” On that question, Romney scored between 38% and 42%.

At campaign events on Thursday, Obama touted a newly released analysis by an independent, nonpartisan think tank that suggested Mitt Romney’s tax plan would be regressive. Romney has yet to fill in the fine print of his pledge to give all Americans a 20% tax cut without adding to the deficit. But the study found that in order to meet those promises, Romney’s plan would lower taxes on the wealthy while slightly hiking overall rates on the middle class, who would be hit harder by likely loophole closures.

The upshot, Obama said, would be a tax increase of about $2,200 on the typical family of four. Individuals who haul in more than $3 million a year would save some $250,000. “He’s asking you to pay more,” Obama said, “so that people like him can pay less.” His campaign released a new ad Thursday morning with a similar theme, and rolled out a feature on its website that allows voters to calculate the Romney plan’s effect on their finances.

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The comparison dovetails with the Obama campaign’s imperative, which is to make the election a “choice”– a word the President laces throughout his speeches – and not a referendum on his stewardship of the economy. “He laid out the differences well,” says Mary Kay Oweck, 67, a retired attorney from Winter Park. A registered Republican who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 but now leans Democrat, Oweck says she plans to vote for Obama.

“They have tried to sell us this trickle-down tax cut fairy dust before,” Obama said in Winter Park. “Every time we’ve grown,” he added in Virginia, “it hasn’t been from the top down. It’s been from the middle out.”

But even the pocketbook pitch is geared toward voters’ hearts more than their wallets. It’s part of the ongoing effort to define Romney as a greedy corporate raider, an executive attuned to the concerns of the boardrooms instead of those of middle-class voters. Painting Romney as a callous financier who would return the country to the fiscal policies that caused the recession is part of the Democrat’s attempt to make the challenger an unpalatable alternative for wavering independent voters.

The contrast between the two candidates’ campaign styles has been nearly as stark as the difference between their economic prescriptions. The sitting President has blanketed the swing states, holding campaign stops in steamy weather and pouring rain. Romney has kept a low-key schedule, attending fundraisers and keeping his distance from the press. Even his stump speech, which has come a long way since the days he crooned patriotic hymns to eat up clock, still seem engineered less to motivate than to avoid giving offense.

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Romney’s remoteness is Obama’s gain, as a new Pew Research Center survey released Thursday underscored. Half of all registered voters have a favorable impression of the President, with 45% viewing him unfavorably. Just 37% of respondents had a favorable image of Romney, compared to 52% with an unfavorable impression. Some Democrats grouse about Obama’s aloofness, but polls show most voters do not like Mitt Romney. It’s easy to be the candidate people want to have a beer with when the other guy doesn’t drink.

The president tried to press that edge Thursday. Before his event in Winter Park, Obama made an unscheduled stop at a cramped Puerto Rican restaurant advertising $3.95 lunch specials in Orlando’s Azalea Park neighborhood, a mostly Hispanic working-class enclave, where he picked up a $6 plate of pulled pork. Stowing his lunch in his limo, Obama waded into a crowd of mostly young African American children, attendees at a nearby church summer camp, for handshakes and photos. After working the rope line at Rollins College, he spoke by closed-circuit TV to a conference of female bloggers.

On he went to Virginia, a state to which he has traveled 38 times as President, 11 times this year alone–and not just because it’s in his backyard. On the grounds of a Loudoun County high school, Obama stoked an upbeat crowd on a floodlit stage under a pink-streaked sky. He kicked off a U-S-A chant in tribute to local gymnast Gabby Douglas’ Olympic triumph, wound through comparisons of the candidates’ tax plan and built to his request for four more years. “My faith in you is stronger than ever, and if you still believe in me like I believe in you, I’m asking you to stand with me,” he said to applause, slipping into his preacher’s cadence and noting that a win in Loudoun County would mean winning Virginia. “If we win Virginia we will win this election, and we’ll finish what we started in 2008.”

But even his fans aren’t fooled by the attempt to replicate the old magic. And his opponents gathered on the streets outside the school, chanting slogans that labeled the President anti-business and toting Romney placards; one sign called Obama a “socialist poseur.” “The momentum isn’t there that was there before,” says Nichelle Watts-Rivera, an accountant from Round Hill, Va. “I think there was a huge expectation that things would be fixed in four years.”

That didn’t happen. What matters now is whether Obama can charm voters into giving him four more.

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