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updated 4/11/2011 9:02:54 AM ET 2011-04-11T13:02:54

President Barack Obama's relationship with his hometown may be best described as a long-distance love affair. He lavishes attention on it from afar and proud Chicago pines for its hometown hero, though the two rarely see each other.

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That looks like it's about to change.

Obama is returning to his roots as he embarks on his re-election race for 2012. He's setting up his campaign headquarters in a downtown high-rise near Grant Park, the site of his victory celebration on election night in November 2008.

He's coming back Thursday to raise money, a week after launching his second White House bid with an understated email and online video.

The president is putting Chicago in the spotlight again as he tries to recreate the grass-roots, start-up flavor of his first campaign and do what no incumbent president has done in decades: try to win re-election from a location outside Washington.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

A Chicago base also could reinforce a connection to a city that aides say keeps Obama grounded while he lives in the nation's capital.

"Nobody is more eager to be out and nobody is more eager to be here than him," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief political strategist who left the White House this year to return to Chicago to work on the re-election and be closer to his Chicago-based family. "The conversation in Washington is completely different than the conversation you hear out here."

Getting beyond the Beltway
Obama's advisers hope a Chicago location could insulate his campaign from some of the Washington chatter and news leaks that often plague campaigns. A beyond-the-Beltway headquarters could allow them to offset the notion that Obama, who campaigned as an outsider above the partisan fray and promised a new approach to politics, has become the ultimate political insider.

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"Basing it in Chicago says, 'I'm not of Washington,' but if he doesn't spend time in Chicago, he is of Washington," said Paul Light, a public service professor at New York University.

Obama's relationship with his town has evolved over the years.

He was a community organizer, worked on a major voter drive and practiced law in his early days in the city. When he entered politics, he focused on the state capital of Springfield, and cast himself as above the brass-knuckled nature of Chicago politics, whose history is pockmarked with corruption and scandal.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama was a fixture in Chicago when he wasn't crisscrossing the country for votes. He took his wife, Michelle, around town to dinner at some of the city's best restaurants. He hung out with his daughters. He worked out at the gym. He played basketball with his buddies. He attended meetings at his campaign office, all under the watchful eye of reporters and Secret Service agents. His family, friends and neighbors talked openly about the candidate and his lifestyle.

As president, Obama has made only about a half a dozen visits to Chicago, often to raise money for candidates. He's made only a few overnight trips to his South Side house.

His neighbors don't seem to hold it against him.

"He's got a whole world to deal with," says Hosea McKay, a 73-year-old retired substance abuse counselor, who lives several blocks away. "We can't be so egotistical that we think he's supposed to pop in every three or four months and hang out with us."

Obama's old neighborhood
The area around Obama's house looks much like it did during the last campaign when extra security measures were added. Even when Obama isn't there, guards and barriers — both metal and concrete — restrict access to his street. His house can be seen through some trees from a nearby busy thoroughfare.

But the neighborhood has changed somewhat since the Obamas left. They're getting new neighbors because the home next door to theirs was sold last year.

Story: Obama opens bid for new term, no longer outsider

While sharing a neighborhood with the president has its share of hassles, Prince Ella Murphy, who lives about a block away, doesn't mind, especially when it comes to the security that increases when Obama is in town.

"I love it. I feel protected because, I mean, they have police everywhere," said Murphy, a 61-year-old retired hotel worker.

Over the past two years, the Obamas have devised ways not to be homesick. They've brought Chicago to them in Washington.

They tapped into their network of hometown connections when they moved into the White House. Among those who relocated to Washington with the Obamas were friend Valerie Jarrett, now a White House adviser, and the family's personal chef. Obama's Chicago buddies, Eric Whitaker and Marty Nesbitt, are constant vacation companions. Countless Chicagoans have visited the White House over the past two years.

The president hosted the 2010 Stanley Cup winners, the Chicago Blackhawks at the White House, last month and put the city's other professional teams on notice. He said: "Let me just say to all the Bears fans, Bulls fans, White Sox fans, and Cubs fans, I want to see all of you sometime soon, as well."

In another nod to their hometown, the Obamas dyed the water in the White House fountains green to celebrate their first St. Patrick's Day in the White House. The city colors the Chicago River that cuts through downtown to celebrate the holiday.

He also swapped one chief of staff from Chicago for another. Rahm Emanuel is Chicago's mayor-elect, while Bill Daley, the current mayor's brother, joined the White House as part of a staff reshuffling aimed at getting ready for the campaign.

Setting up headquarters
While Axelrod said more presidential visits are likely, given that the campaign headquarters is in Chicago, just how much time Obama and his family will spend in Chicago this time is unclear. The duties of the presidency don't lend themselves to much down time.

His team is setting up shop in a downtown high-rise not far from offices the Obama operation used in 2008. Campaign manager Jim Messina, a former White House deputy chief of staff, is directing the effort, and Axelrod is certain to be a constant presence.

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"It's nascent group and it's going to grow," said Axelrod, who stopped by the offices recently. "You could sense, you could feel some of that old excitement coming back and you know people are really eager to get going."

Some are hoping to see Obama, himself, more.

Says Freddie Fitch, 53, who lives just a few blocks from the Obamas, "We love him here."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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