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Obama faces a less friendly Iowa

Lisa Howard switched her voter registration from Republican to Democratic in 2008 so she could caucus for Barack Obama, so impressed was she by the fresh-faced candidate’s calls for hope and change.

While the 50-year-old supports Obama’s efforts to fix the economy — the top issue here and everywhere else — she doesn’t know if she’ll be supporting him again in the 2012 presidential contest. The real estate agent plans to survey the GOP field, though to be honest she has been too busy staying afloat to get involved.

“I’m just trying to survive this economy,” the Des Moines resident said as she strolled through the city’s trendy East Village neighborhood.

Three years ago, Obama’s victory in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses put a relatively unknown senator from Illinois on the political map. The expectation that former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton would clinch the Democratic nomination crumbled on Jan. 3, 2008, when Obama captured a surprise first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses on a swell of voters like Howard. Such voters will be key to whether Obama can again carry Iowa and its six electoral votes in the 2012 general election.

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The situation on the ground has changed dramatically since those heady days. Unemployment in Iowa hovers at 6%, a number that would draw cheers in California and many other states, but is high for the Hawkeye State.

“There are over 100,000 people unemployed,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, and the unemployment rate is more than double than when the Republican governor left office after his first tenure in 1999.

In predicting a rougher time next year for Obama, Branstad pointed to his own race in 2010. He beat a Democratic incumbent, the first time since 1962 that a sitting governor had failed to win reelection.

Political loyalties are clearly changing among Iowans, quintessential swing voters who supported Democrat Al Gore in 2000, Republican George W. Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008.

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“The political ground at the president’s feet has shifted dramatically since he carried Iowa in the 2008 election,” said Matt Strawn, chairman of the state GOP. “Here in the state that launched Barack Obama on the path to the White House in 2008, Iowans have dramatically soured on the president. Iowans are voting with their feet.”

One in 10 Iowa Democrats has left the party, more than 65,000 during Obama’s tenure, he said. The state GOP has seen 27 months of gains in registration, meaning that Iowa Democrats’ registration edge has shrunk by two-thirds since Obama took office and is approaching parity.

To be sure, some of Obama’s most ardent supporters remain so.

Emily Shields just held a party at her Des Moines home for Obama supporters. She sees some dissatisfaction among her friends with some of Obama’s moves as president, such as supporting the extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. But she believes they will come around, especially once the Republican nominee becomes clear.

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“I think he’s done a fantastic job. I don’t get the backlash,” said Shields, 32, who works at a nonprofit. “People will get fired up again at the end of the day.”

But some on the liberal left are angry that he has failed to keep promises he made three years ago, such as closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and aggressively pursuing immigration reform. One group of disaffected Democrats hopes to use the caucus process to push planks that would urge the Democratic presidential nominee to begin a full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2013.

“The most common answer I give and I hear is ‘disappointed,’ and that he hasn’t done as much as what we would have liked to see him do,” said Ed Flaherty, 65, an Iowa City resident with Veterans for Peace, the group pushing the plank.

Some moderates are also unsettled.

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Jason Garnett, 32, is the son of a Baptist minister, a regular churchgoer and a registered Democrat who supported Obama in 2008. He’s not thrilled with the president — or the current GOP field.

“I would like to not vote for Obama, but it seems like Republicans are trying as hard as they can to make you vote for Obama,” said the bar manager at Lucca, as he delivered gnocchi, grilled salmon and sauvignon blanc to patrons of the East Village restaurant.

Obama’s campaign office is located nearby; the staff frequented the restaurant in 2008, and the candidate stopped by occasionally and held a fundraiser there.

“The staff couldn’t be a nicer group, and he couldn’t be a nicer person,” Garnett said. But “the novelty has worn off with Obama and he just appears like every other politician, or even worse. He seems out of touch.”

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The candidate’s campaign is trying to rekindle some of the fervor once felt by people like Garnett. For months, Organizing for America, the remnant of Obama’s 2008 organization, has been hosting weekly phone banks, calling more than 600 people a week from a corporate office park in Des Moines. They routinely schedule house parties and gatherings across the state.

The president is also trying to revive that excitement. Last week, he visited Bettendorf, near the Illinois border.

“Hello, Iowa! I see a couple old friends here,” he told hundreds at the Alcoa manufacturing plant. “You know, I know you’ve been seeing a lot of politicians around lately. Something tells me that you may see a few more before February is over. But Iowa, you and I, we go a long way back.… So we’ve got some history together. And together we’re going to make some more history for years to come.”

Although the White House denied that there was any political calculation behind the trip, Obama’s visit had the feel of a campaign swing. Before he spoke at the plant about job gains in the manufacturing sector, the president swung by Ross’, a nearby restaurant best known for its calorie-laden concoctions such as the Magic Mountain sandwich (loose steamed hamburger meat, French fries or hash browns, cheese and onions sandwiched between grilled Texas toast). Obama first met owner Cynthia Friedhof at a 2008 town hall meeting.

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Iowa strategists said the more visits he makes, the better his chances. Jerry Crawford, a Democratic strategist and Des Moines lawyer, ticked off the challenges Obama faces: disillusioned supporters, apathy among the young, a less energized small-donor base.

“Having said all that, I think he just had a tremendous visit to Iowa,” Crawford said. “The thing I liked the best about his visit was his stop at the restaurant. After three years of being battered in that position, you can forget why you like someone so much, and just in one photo-op stop, he sort of recaptured some of that warmth the state felt for him.”

But Crawford has no illusions that Obama has a firm advantage.

“Unless the economy is a lot stronger than it is today, Iowa is a swing state,” he said. “No doubt about it.”

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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