President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, inspect… (Carolyn Kaster, Associated…)
DES MOINES — Iowa contributes all of six electoral votes to the grand total of 538 up for grabs in November's election.
But President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney are devoting plenty of time to the state, an indication that both campaigns think the election could come down to that thin slice.
Obama started a long bus tour of small Iowa towns Monday, where he bemoaned the failure of Congress to pass a farm bill and promised to take administrative action to help farmers suffering through a prolonged drought.
A few miles away, newly minted Republican vice presidential candidate Paul D. Ryan — a member of that Congress — visited the Iowa State Fair to challenge Obama directly on his policies as well as his claim to the battleground state that started his rise to the presidency in 2008.
Some other election year, six electoral votes might not command a three-day trip from a sitting president — the longest stretch in any state since his election — or a visit from a running mate whose weekend selection is still making news. But this year is different.
Obama built his Iowa schedule on the premise that a few thousand votes could dictate the outcome. He landed early Monday and drove straight to a rally in Council Bluffs, on the state's western border. He meandered eastward, stopping in small towns and counties on the way to Boone and Oskaloosa by day's end. He added a stop at the Iowa State Fair, arriving just hours after Ryan had been there.
At a farm in Missouri Valley that has been devastated by drought, Obama delivered a state-focused message about drought, wind energy and the need for a farm bill, all issues Obama strategists think are winners for him here.
Obama laid responsibility for the failure to aid farmers on Congress — and specifically on House Republicans like Ryan.
"The best way to help these states is for leaders in Congress to pass a farm bill that not only helps farmers and ranchers respond to natural disasters, but also makes necessary reforms and gives them some long-term certainty," Obama told a noon rally in Council Bluffs. "And he's one of those leaders of Congress standing in the way."
For Ryan, Monday marked the first day of campaigning solo on the national stage, and his message about balancing the budget and creating jobs was met with cheers and jeers at the traditional soapbox at the Iowa State Fair. The fair is always a challenging place for politicking; it was from the soapbox that Romney famously told hecklers last year that corporations are people too.
"This is the worst economic recovery — if you want to call it that — in 70 years," Ryan said, as sign-waving Romney supporters cheered and protesters from the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund shouted comments such as "Are you going to cut Medicare?" and "Stop the war on the common good."
After first addressing the protesters — Ryan said he guessed they weren't from Iowa — he continued with his speech, vowing to eliminate tax loopholes and require work for welfare.
Ryan also tried to play up his ties to Iowa, adjacent to his home state of Wisconsin, by advising the crowd to have a "wrist-band day" at their state fair, as Wisconsin does, and waving a Green Bay Packers jersey. The NFL team is a favorite of some in Iowa.
"I feel such kindred spirits here," he said, clearly not referring to the shouting protesters a few feet away. "We are united as Upper Midwesterners…. At the end of the day, we are Americans."
The attention to Iowa underscores how tight the race is nationwide. And almost nowhere are a state's voters so evenly divided. Two weeks before the political conventions are set to begin, Obama and Romney are dead even or close to it in Iowa, depending on the poll.
It has been a long slide for Obama, who by most analyses wouldn't be president if not for his win in the Iowa caucuses in 2008. That early victory gave his candidacy legitimacy and helped him win the Democratic nomination. He went on to capture Iowa in the general election by more than 9 percentage points.
Four years of economic struggle have taken their toll, though, and a hard-fought Republican caucus season here served to raise Romney's profile and batter Obama's image.
"The Republicans came out of those caucuses with a huge organizational edge," said David Yepsen, a longtime Iowa political reporter who now heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "They know who is active in every precinct, they have good lists. They've overtaken Democrats in voter registration."
Republicans make up 33% of active registered voters; Democrats make up 32% and independent voters 35%. But when nonactive registered voters are added to the totals, Democrats have a slight edge over Republicans.
"Iowa is a representative microcosm of the difficulty he faces," said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University. "The Democratic base is disappointed and discouraged. He's got to get them engaged again."