President Barack Obama faces new warning signs in a once-promising Southern state and typically Democratic-voting Midwestern states roughly five months before the election even as he benefits nationally from encouraging economic news.
Obama's new worries about North Carolina and Wisconsin offer opportunities for Republican Mitt Romney, who must peel off states Obama won in 2008 if he's to cobble together the 270 electoral votes needed to oust the incumbent in November.
Iowa, which kicked off the campaign in January, is now expected to be tight to the finish, while New Mexico, thought early to be pivotal, seems to be drifting into Democratic territory.
If the election were today, Obama would likely win 247 electoral votes to Romney's 206, according to an Associated Press analysis of polls, ad spending and key developments in states, along with interviews with more than a dozen Republican and Democratic strategists both inside and outside of the two campaigns.
Seven states, offering a combined 85 electoral votes, are viewed as too close to give either candidate a meaningful advantage: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia.
"As of today, the advantage still lies with the president, but there is a long and hard road ahead in this election," said Tad Devine, who was a top strategist to Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry but isn't directly involved in this year's race.
If Romney wins all the states Republican John McCain carried in 2008 plus North Carolina, as trends today suggest he would, he would still need 64 electoral votes to hit the magic number. That would require him to win a majority of the states that are up for grabs.
Obama, on the other hand, faces the costly and labor-intensive challenge of defending those states in a much different environment than the one he enjoyed four years ago.
Big-spending, pro-Romney political committees are certain to be a factor, and already are running heavy levels of television ads in states where Obama is vulnerable, such as Florida.
But Obama's early spending — more than $30 million on advertising before Memorial Day — and new glimmers of economic hope across the battleground states demonstrate the size of Romney's challenge.
The race is expected to be close, and the past six weeks have been volatile.
North Carolina is a case in point.
Obama announced his support for gay marriage on May 9, one day after 60 percent of North Carolina voters approved a constitutional ban. "That issue definitely hurts him down there," said veteran Republican presidential campaign strategist Charlie Black, a top aide to 2008 nominee McCain who's not directly involved in this year's race.
North Carolina's high African American and young voter population, keys to Obama's 2008 wins there, give him the edge, aides say. And the president so far has spent heavily there, $2.7 million on television, according to reports provided to the AP.
But Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue gave Republicans an opening by not seeking re-election this year. And union leaders, a key Democratic constituency, are upset that this summer's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., is being held in a state where union rights are weak.
In Wisconsin, embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker's improving fortunes as a contentious June 5 recall election approaches could alter that state's landscape. Walker, who sparked mass protests by signing anti-union legislation last year, has pulled narrowly ahead of Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in recent polls.
If Walker survives, Romney aides say they have a real chance to carry Wisconsin, which no Republican has done since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
"I don't think there's been any better dress rehearsal for a presidential election than what's going on in Wisconsin right now," said Rich Beeson, political director for the former Massachusetts governor.
Indeed, the Wisconsin recall could signal a GOP shift in an arc of states from Iowa to Pennsylvania that have reliably voted Democratic in presidential elections for a generation.
"Whether Walker wins or doesn't is going to be a big indicator of how Wisconsin goes, and how the whole upper Midwest goes," said Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.
Romney has signaled plans to contest Iowa, where Obama's 2008 caucus win propelled him to the Democratic nomination. Romney also sees opportunity in his native Michigan, where Democratic presidential candidates have won since 1988.
Bright spots are developing for Obama, too.
Public polls this month showed the president narrowly ahead in Virginia, a Southern state Republicans had carried nine times before Obama won it in 2008. Obama's advantage among Latino voters is moving New Mexico his way. Neither campaign nor the super PACs have advertised there, despite close finishes in 2000 and 2004.
Obama also has seized on new economic data that could give him a lift across the contested map. April unemployment ticked downward in all of the up-for-grabs states except Colorado as Obama and Romney have fought over who is best equipped to lead an economic recovery.
In Des Moines, Iowa, this month, Romney blamed Obama's spending for the recovery's slow pace. A week later, on the other side of town, Obama said Romney's career as a private equity executive was more suited for the boardroom than the Oval Office.
Obama's attack dovetails with scathing ads on Romney's career at the head of Bain Capital, which ran briefly in Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Virginia. They remained on the air last week in Ohio, where Obama aides say Romney's opposition to the auto industry bailout in 2009 hurts him with workers in the region's auto manufacturing sector.
Obama has had an edge in getting out his message. For nearly two months, his campaign has aired spots across 11 states, heaviest in Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Virginia, according to the ad-tracking reports.
Romney has only been airing ads for two weeks in four states. But super PACs that support him have helped shave Obama's advertising edge, airing $10 million in ads across 10 states.
Obama aides point to an edge in state-by-state organizing that could be the deciding factor in a close election. While Romney is quickly arranging with the Republican National Committee to deploy staff to various battlegrounds, Obama's campaign has been up and running for years.
Said Democratic strategist Devine: "The president and his campaign have a real and potentially decisive advantage on the ground."
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