CHICAGO — Republicans hope voters' fears about jobs and the economy will help them reclaim a handful of Mountain West and Southern states that were crucial to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential win.
Obama's campaign appears just as determined to hold those states next year and force Republicans to spend precious resources defending places they'd like to consider safe.
Every four years, political operatives fixate on the dozen or so states that always decide close presidential elections.
This time, Obama hopes to play on as big an Electoral College map as possible, and his team insists it will compete for the first time in traditionally solid Republican states like Georgia and Arizona. Republicans, conversely, want a compact map, hoping for wins in big, always-contested states such as Florida and Ohio, which were key to George W. Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004.
It takes 270 electoral votes to win the White House.
Obama won it in 2008 partly by prevailing in states such as Virginia and Indiana that had not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in decades.
But with unemployment now at 9.1 percent, and the economic recovery slowed, many Republicans argue that Obama's chances are notably worse in those states, as well as others in the vote-rich, economically struggling Midwest. They say they can win some, if not all, of three crucial battleground states — Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — along with some smaller states that Obama carried, including New Mexico, Nevada and Iowa. Republicans thrived in all those states in the 2010 midterm elections, and GOP strategists hope the momentum will carry into next year, thwarting Obama.
"The map is very difficult for him," said Rick Wiley, political director of the Republican National Committee.
Obama's campaign sees it differently.
"We are going to take the old map and expand it," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in an interview at his office in Chicago. He argues that demographic trends are moving in Democrats' direction in several states, which could help them hold Virginia and North Carolina and possibly win Georgia and Arizona.
"Changes in the composition of the electorate" make the states attractive, said David Axelrod, Obama's top political adviser.
The president carried North Carolina and Virginia in 2008 thanks largely to black voters, Latinos, college-educated workers and non-natives who are more open to Democrats than are many Southern-born whites. Those population groups are expanding in the two states, his backers say. The same is true in Georgia, a GOP-controlled state that hasn't been strongly contested in many years.
Obama insiders say he could have won Arizona in 2008 if John McCain, the state's senior senator, had not been the GOP nominee. They argue that with Arizona's Hispanic population still growing, Obama's chances are better this time because that group leans toward Democrats.
Many Republicans scoff at such talk. But they have their own problems, starting with the task of taking back most or all of the nine swing-voting states that Obama won in 2008 and that Democrat John Kerry lost in 2004: Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
"There are a million different maps," Wiley said. But the GOP's priorities start with those nine "top tier" states.
To oust Obama, the Republicans don't need to win all nine.
If Obama keeps his grip on the Western states of Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, and the Republican nominee wins the other six of the nine swing states, the GOP would reclaim the White House with 271 electoral votes. That's assuming other states vote the same as in 2008.
Obama's situation becomes more perilous if he loses a state that Democrats have won for several elections, although often narrowly. That might include Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin, a state that Democrats took by a whisker in 2000 and 2004. Obama handily won it in 2008.
Republican governors replaced Democrats last year in all those states, along with Iowa, New Mexico and Ohio.
In these battlegrounds with newly elected Republican governors, Wiley said, "you have that infrastructure that doesn't get dismantled, and it's a huge, huge advantage" to the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.
Not so, Democrats say.
New GOP governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio and Rick Scott in Florida have clashed bitterly with various groups, especially unions. The result could be a fired-up Democratic base turning out heavily for Obama.
Top Democrats say it's unlikely that Obama will lose Pennsylvania, which always draws huge attention but has voted Democratic in the last five presidential elections.
Privately, those close to Obama worry more about Ohio, which has 18 electoral votes. Its unemployment rate, 8.6 percent, is slightly below the national average. But its population growth is almost flat, and it doesn't have the large numbers of unregistered minorities and young adults that the Obama campaign is targeting in other states.
No Republican has been elected president without carrying Ohio.
Of the nine targeted states that Kerry lost, Obama needs to hold only Ohio and one small state — say, Nevada or Iowa — to win re-election, assuming the other states vote the same as in 2008.
Florida, with 29 electoral votes, is even more vital.
If Obama holds no other state but Florida among the top-tier nine, he wins a second term.
Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political scientist, said the Sunshine State seems destined to play its toss-up role again.
"The economy is still not doing well here," Jewett said, "and Obama is not very popular." But Scott, the new Republican governor, "is extremely unpopular right now," he said, and that could undo the GOP presidential nominee in a razor-thin race.
Finally, several plausible map scenarios would leave the 2012 presidential nominees in a 269-269 electoral tie. That would hand the decision to the U.S. House, where Republicans expect to hold their majority even if they suffer some losses.
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