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Obama has his work cut out for him on the political map

By and Perry Bacon Jr.,

Officials from both parties are already focusing on roughly a dozen key states in preparation for next year’s presidential election, as Republicans view a group of states won by President George W. Bush in 2004 but Barack Obama four years later as fertile territory for a GOP comeback because of public concern about the economy.

The emerging electoral map illustrates a dynamic even Democrats privately concede: Obama’s path to victory will be narrower than it was in 2008 when he scored a 365-electoral vote victory over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) thanks to a massive fundraising edge, Bush fatigue and a struggling economy. There are many states, such as Indiana, that Obama could lose that he won in 2008, but few he could shift the other way.

“The (Obama) map is going to be smaller than 2008,” said one Democratic fundraiser who has been briefed by 2012 Obama campaign officials.

Taken collectively, the battleground states represent the cross pressures facing the two parties as they look forward to the 2012 election. In Florida, Nevada, and Ohio, the economy continues to lag badly, presenting the Obama political team with a major challenge.

In Virginia, liberal-leaning transplants from the northeast and young voters fuel Democratic optimism. In New Mexico and Colorado, burgeoning Hispanic populations will force Republicans to grapple with their continued struggles in the Latino community.

Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley argued in a recent memo that those six states, as well as three others — Indiana, Iowa and North Carolina — that both Obama and previously Bush carried in 2008 and 2004, respectively, have moved away from the president.

As evidence of the GOP’s momentum, Wiley noted that since 2008, Republicans have won a Senate seat, four governor’s races, seven state legislative chambers and 17 House seats in those nine states combined

“His (Obama’s) path to re-election must go back through those states, but his prospects there are far from certain,” wrote Wiley. “In only two and a half years, his position in those states, and in many others, has deteriorated dramatically, and Republican strength is in plain view.”

Obama campaign officials have touted Georgia and Arizona as potential states the president did not carry in 2008 but could in 2012 because of growth in the Hispanic population. Latinos grew by 46.3 percent in Arizona over the past decade and now comprise three in every ten state residents, according to the 2010 census.

In Georgia, the Hispanic population increased by an eye-popping 96.1 percent over the last decade; Latinos now account for nearly 10 percent of all Peach State residents. ((Bill Clinton, in 1992, was the last Democrat to carry Georgia in a presidential race; Clinton won Arizona in 1996, the last Democrat to do that.)

“Our focus over the next 500 days is building the strongest organization possible in all states that might potentially be in play in 2012. Not only are we building that organization in states the President won in 2008, but were also engaging the grass-roots in states that may emerge as pickup opportunities,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “This campaign will not be built around one state.”

But Obama’s public appearances, which are designed in part to place him in key states as often as possible, illustrate that he is largely on the defensive, visiting states he won in 2008 but are in peril next year.

Speaking at Northern Virginia Community College Wednesday, he joked “I come here often enough that I think I should be getting some credits.”

The president will make stops next week in Florida and North Carolina, along with a Tuesday appearance in Puerto Rico, which could help him appeal to the growing population of people from there who live in the United States, particularly in the Sunshine State.

In North Carolina, the state’s significant African-American population — roughly one in five residents are black, according to the 2010 Census — coupled with a significant college-age and young-professional population give the Obama team hope that he can re-create the coalition that made him the first Democratic presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter to carry the Tar Heel State.

It’s a sign of the White House commitment to North Carolina that it chose Charlotte as the host city for the 2012 Democratic National Convention. On the other hand, officials in both parties privately say they expect Democrats to effectively concede Indiana to the GOP.

Obama’s challenge should be not exaggerated. Even as a series of reports showing the relative weakness of the economic recovery have bolstered Republican strategists’ confidence, the president’s sweeping victory in 2008 poses a significant challenge for the GOP.

Obama carried 28 states and the District of Columbia in 2008. His electoral vote total marked the highest point for a Democrat since Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection, when he won 379.

In 2o12, if Republicans were able to win all nine of the states that Bush carried in 2004 but Obama claimed in 2008, it would reduce the president’s electoral vote total to 253 — below the 270 he would need to win a second term. But, if Obama was able to win Ohio, for example, he could lose the eight other states and still be re-elected.

Staff writer Aaron Blake and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this story.

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