President Obama visits Decorah, Iowa, on Aug. 15 as part of a three-day bus… (Joe Raedle, Getty Images )
Reporting from Ankeny, Iowa — For months, the Republican presidential hopefuls have churned across Iowa, hammering a single theme in speeches, debates and countless conversations: President Obama must go.
The GOP candidates have held more than 700 campaign events in the state, according to the Des Moines Register, compared with six visits by Obama, who is running unopposed for his party's nomination and thus sees little reason to come before the Jan. 3 caucuses.
FOR THE RECORD:
Obama's Iowa campaign: An article in the Dec. 18 Section A about President Obama's plans to win Iowa in 2012 said his Iowa campaign had placed more than 25,000 calls to supporters. It should have said 250,000 calls. —
Yet Obama is hardly ignoring Iowa. The state, which traditionally casts the first votes of the presidential campaign, will probably be one of a handful of Midwestern battlegrounds that both sides target next fall.
"It starts here," Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said of the 2012 race, and "it will also finish here."
A victory in the precinct caucuses four years ago launched Obama on his path to the White House, and his campaign operation, which powered him to a big Iowa victory in the general election, never really shut down. The president's extensive volunteer network has been kept intact and the first paid staff members arrived here in early spring 2009.
The number has since grown to more than a dozen staffers in eight offices — from the Missouri River on one side of Iowa to the Mississippi on the other — an operation that probably surpasses that of any Republican running, including the best-organized, Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney opened his first Iowa office last month and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is still setting up his operation in the state.
By contrast, the Obama campaign reports holding more than 1,000 house parties, phone-banking sessions and planning meetings, placing more than 250,000 calls to supporters, and engaging in more than 2,500 one-on-one conversations.
On an evening last week, a dozen volunteers gathered at a community center in this Des Moines suburb, munching cookies and drinking coffee as they used cellphones to call around the state and urge Democrats to caucus next month despite the president's lack of competition from within the party.
"I feel strongly about getting people to come out," said volunteer Shirley Evans, 81, a retired nurse, who bought the coffee and paid $60 to rent the small conference room, decorated with a few lonesome Christmas ornaments. (The Obama team runs a stingy operation.) "We really need to focus on keeping our advances and not losing what's been accomplished."
Iowa has fared better economically than many states. Unemployment was at 6% in November, compared with 8.6% nationally, and the strong agricultural economy has had a positive ripple effect.
But the national slog back from a cavernous recession has affected attitudes here; if the economy is not bad, relatively speaking, it's certainly not as good as Iowans have been used to. The unemployment rate was 3.9% in December 2007, when the recession started.
For the president to win Iowa again, "there has to be some indication we're moving in the right direction, even if it doesn't meet people's ideal expectations," said state Sen. Jeff Danielson, a Democrat who represents the Cedar Falls area, in the eastern half of the state.
Iowa Democrats worry about the damage the president may have suffered from being pounded by his Republican opponents, day in, day out, for at least a year. "That has a cumulative effect," said Jeff Link, a longtime party strategist, "which the campaign will need to push back on."
David Nagle, a former congressman and former state Democratic Party chairman, recently wrote to the White House urging Obama or Vice President Joe Biden to come to Iowa before Jan. 3. "Issuing periodic press releases from a campaign headquarters in Des Moines" is insufficient, Nagle wrote. "Presence is required."
Neither Obama nor Biden plan to visit anytime soon, however, and Dvorsky said that suited her fine. She doesn't need the hassle of preparing for a presidential visit, she said, at a time when she would rather focus on preparing for the organizationally intensive caucuses.
In addition to the presidential race, Iowa will have two hotly contested congressional races next year and a battle for control of the state Senate, where Democrats hold a bare majority.
"I'm confident we'll hear from the president all year long," Dvorsky said. "Do we need the president to come out in the next two weeks to get Democratic activists to turn out? No."
Dvorsky and Obama strategists said the caucuses, as important as they may be for identifying supporters and recruiting volunteers, are just one step in a lengthy process aimed at the Nov. 6 election.
"On Jan. 4, all the other campaigns will have left town," said John Kraus, Obama's Iowa spokesman. "We'll be here and continue building what we've been building."