Mitt Romney greets supporters at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids.… (Charlie Neibergall / Associated…)
DAVENPORT, Iowa — For Barack Obama, Iowa was the state that launched his path to the presidency, turning a long-shot candidacy into a freight train. For Mitt Romney, the Hawkeye State was always an expansive quagmire where he never could quite win the trust of its voters, who helped sink his 2008 bid for the presidency.
Yet less than two weeks before the November election, Iowa is surprisingly close and a potentially crucial factor with its 6 electoral votes. On Wednesday, Obama and Romney campaigned 80 miles apart on the eastern side of the state.
Late in the day, Obama made a quick pit stop in Los Angeles to tape "The Tonight Show," where he poked fun at Donald Trump and criticized an Indiana Republican's assertion that pregnancy resulting from rape was God's will. Then the president was off to Nevada for a late-night rally.
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In Iowa, under oaks awash in fall yellows, Obama gathered Iowans at a fairgrounds in Davenport and appealed to them like a native son. The rally was the start of a two-day, six-battleground-state blitz — a grand tour to jump-start his campaign had to start in Iowa, he said.
"Because this is where it all began four years ago — on your front porches, in your backyards. This is where the movement for change began," he said. "And Iowa, you will once again choose the path that we take from here."
The Obama campaign has long felt Iowa was theirs for the taking, a place likely to reject Romney's corporate demeanor and credentials in favor of the president's populist appeal. In an attempt to seal the deal, Obama has showered time and attention on his Iowa fans — visiting the state 16 times as president and 10 times this year.
But as with handful of other swing states, polls show Obama with only the thinnest edge over Romney, with just 12 days left.
The state has long given Romney trouble. Evangelical voters, who play a powerful role in selecting a Republican candidate, have been suspicious of Romney's Mormon faith and his shifts on issues like gay rights and abortion, among other things.
In 2008, Romney sank some $10 million into the caucuses and ended up with an embarrassing second-place finish behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. This cycle, with the campaign setting expectations lower, Romney lost to Rick Santorum, but by only 34 votes.
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On Wednesday evening, Romney returned to Cedar Rapids, where he has fared better than in more conservative parts of the state.
With enthusiastic supporters packing an airplane hangar, Romney spoke of debt and the squeeze on middle-class families, and argued that the president's healthcare plan would increase medical costs. He said that the Obama campaign had "been slipping" because "they can't find an agenda to help the American family."
Romney promised the crowd that he was going to win in November. To huge cheers, Romney touted his plans to shift federal dollars on programs like job training back to the states to let the state's governor "do what's right for the people of Iowa."
He asked seniors, families who were "having a tough time making ends meet" or young people "wondering if they are going to get a good job at graduation" to raise their hands.
"Yeah, that's what I thought," he said, when many in the audience raised their hands. "I'm seeing this across this country. The Americans want a different course for this nation and they recognize that the path that the president's put us on is very different than the path that Paul Ryan and I are going to put this country on."
Iowans have been voting for weeks, with early and absentee vote totals offering a measure of gauging who has the advantage.
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As of Tuesday, it appeared Democrats had a clear lead in requesting and returning absentee ballots — 47% of ballots returned came from Democratic registrants and 32% from Republicans, according to the secretary of state.
But Republicans say they're making strides, noting that volunteers have made about 1.1 million voter contacts regarding absentee ballots.
The GOP will try to amplify Romney's message in Iowa this week with a "We can't afford four more years" bus tour that will hold "early voting" rallies in Davenport, Mason City, Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Des Moines.
On Wednesday, Obama played off his familiarity with state voters.
"Iowa, you know me. You know that I say what I mean, and I mean what I say," he said. "And you could take a videotape of things I said 10 years ago, 12 years ago, and you'd say, man, this is the same guy — has the same values, cares about the same people, doesn't forget where he came from, knows who he's fighting for."
Still, Obama managed to ruffle some Iowan sensibilities.