President Obama speaks in Elyria, Ohio, last month. As he officially kicks… (Michael Francis McElroy,…)
WASHINGTON — If Barack Obama's first presidential campaign was part cultural phenomenon, part national movement, his second may look a bit more modest — like a series of well-run Senate campaigns.
Facing the reality of running as a bruised incumbent in a politically divided country, Obama's advisors say they are plotting a strategy that doesn't depend on a wave of support to lift the president's chances across the country. And it won't hinge on a single theme based on ideas such as "hope" and "change" that defined the campaign and captured the zeitgeist in 2008.
Instead, the Obama campaign is prepping for a block-by-block, hard-slog approach. The campaign, which the president kicks off this weekend, will be tailored to swing states and key voters in those states.
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That means talking up the revival of manufacturing to persuade jaded blue-collar voters in Ohio to keep the faith. In Virginia it means tapping into the growing suburban vote and using the state's GOP Legislature and governor as a foil to energize female voters.
"We are running a series of state-specific campaigns even more so than we did in 2008, where each state's volunteers help drive what is important for them to work on in that state," campaign manager Jim Messina said.
Campaign advisors, however, emphasize that what voters in Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Va., hear from the president in his first two rallies Saturday will not be inconsistent.
"We are not the candidate who reinvents himself from week to week," said David Axelrod, Obama's top campaign strategist, in a swipe at Republican contender Mitt Romney. "This is a candidate who has a mission and is going to see it through, and that is to rebuild an economy in which the middle class is thriving."
Republicans see not a savvy strategic decision but an option of last resort for an incumbent who they believe cannot run on his own record, and thus faces a much steeper climb to victory.
To keep the election focused on the idea that Obama has failed to live up to his promise, Republicans unveiled their own slogan Thursday — "hype and blame" — to drive that point home.
"Overall, this will be a referendum on whether or not we want four more years of misery, which include having Barack Obama lead this country. And I think the American people are going to say no," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "It's going to be the same question in Nevada, Wisconsin, Ohio and Virginia."
Obama's last campaign was remarkable for its consistent messaging. Particularly in the primary campaign, his steady theme of "change" stood in contrast to the ever-evolving branding of Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign.
The message now is more nuanced, in part a reflection of a data-driven operation that allows for even more sophisticated micro-targeting of voters than in past campaigns.
Even before the Obama campaign unveiled its new national slogan, "Forward," its Ohio campaign had its own: "Made in Ohio." The slogan was the brainchild of the local arm of Obama for America, and was rolled out on a media tour of auto manufacturing plants across northern Ohio.
At each one, workers from that county — and only that county — testified about how Obama's decision to bail out the auto industry had changed their lives.
Outside the Trumbull County Magna factory, which makes car seats and ceiling liners for the nearby GM plant, 20 United Auto Workers members did interviews with two local television stations and three local newspapers. The hulking plant, a packed employee parking lot and a pair of Chevy Cruzes served as the backdrop.
"If GM went bankrupt and couldn't pay their suppliers, the auto industry in Ohio would have been done," UAW Local 1112 President Jim Graham told a reporter from WKBN-TV in Youngstown.
Manufacturing is the foundation of the Obama campaign's message to these Rust Belt voters — and the auto bailout, which Romney opposed, is Obama's top credential.
That message is key in a state where the campaign must persuade skeptical independent voters to give the president another shot. Obama won Ohio by just 4 percentage points in 2008.
In Virginia, however, Obama's campaign will have to worry less about swaying voters and more about turning out sympathetic ones. In Richmond on Wednesday, the campaign office was humming as a phone bank of 30 volunteers tried to boost turnout for the president's rally at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Voters in the majority African American city know "we have to do it again," said Sandra Antoine, 56, a volunteer reaching out to churches. "They are willing to stand up, rally up, go out and support him."