Setting the stage for a long, bruising reelection fight, President Obama returned to this critical battleground state for the second time in as many months on a bus tour that made clear — in pageantry and message — that his campaign is already in full swing.

Obama ditched Air Force One after landing in Asheville and climbed aboard a specially equipped black bus to wind his way 106 miles to this tiny town of 2,000, stopping at a barbecue joint and a confectionery store for carefully orchestrated photo ops.

Along the way, Obama tested a sharpened message that is likely to be central to his campaign next year, drawing sharp distinctions between himself and his Republican rivals about how to fix the ailing economy.

The Senate blocked Obama’s $447 billion American Jobs Act last week, but the president vowed to keep pressing for passage of a series of smaller bills based on components of the plan. He compared his ideas to a GOP proposal that would roll back federal regulations, which Republicans argue are stunting business investment and growth.

“It turns out the Republican plan boils down to a few basic ideas: They want to gut regulations; they want to let Wall Street do whatever it wants,” Obama told a crowd on the airport tarmac in Asheville.

“You’ve got their plan and you’ve got my plan,” the president added. “We’re giving members of Congress another chance to step up to the plate and do the right thing.”

Republicans have dismissed Obama’s national jobs tour, which has focused largely on electoral swing states that he carried in 2008, as little more than a campaign platform aimed at winning votes, not creating jobs.

“He had the benefit of surprise last time because no one felt he could carry the state, and the Republicans took everything for granted,” said John Davis, a North Carolina-based political analyst. “Obama did everything exactly right to pull off the upset and Republicans did everything wrong, and he still won by only 14,000 votes. Given that, it seems he would have a very difficult time winning the state again.”

But with the Democratic National Convention slated for Charlotte next summer, Obama has refused to yield ground here without a fight. Last month, Obama visited a manufacturing company in the increasingly liberal Research Triangle Park area of Raleigh-Durham, followed by a speech at North Carolina State University.

Still, concern among Obama’s supporters about his reelection chances was palpable in the crowds that came to hear him. In Asheville, Blair Jenkins, 56, of Flat Rock, and Linda Thiry, 61, of Hendersonville, said they are increasingly worried about the president’s standing in the state.

“I feel like in this part of North Carolina, we really need to come out and show support. There are a lot of people who do support him, but we stay really quiet because it’s a conservative area,” said Jenkins, a retired fundraiser for the arts and health industries. “I think the liberals are way too willing to sit back and be silent because we feel outnumbered. I think we’re going to have to get back up like we were in ’08 and start speaking up.”

Thiry, who runs an outpatient physical therapy center, added that she was glad that Obama had come to town with an urgent tone.

“The president is just a graceful man, and sometimes he doesn’t speak up for himself,” she said. “And sometimes the Republicans just get really loud and just spew all this stuff.”