Image: Barack Obama
Justin Lane  /  EPA
President Barack Obama campaigns for Democratic candidates before the 2010 elections. For his own re-election campaign in 2012, Obama hopes to play on as big an Electoral College map as possible.
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updated 6/20/2011 10:10:10 AM ET 2011-06-20T14:10:10

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.

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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.

Video: Romney keeps focused on Obama (on this page)

"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.

Image: Tim Pawlenty
Jim Gehrz  /  AP
Republican presidential hopeful, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks at the AFP RightOnline Conference in Minneapolis on Saturday, June 18, 2011. Pawlenty finished last in a straw poll conducted at the conference.

"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.

Video: Is Obama-mania over? (on this page)

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.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Romney keeps focused on Obama

  1. Closed captioning of: Romney keeps focused on Obama

    >>> mitt rom mee is skipping this weekend's republican conference in new orleans. instead he's keeping his focus on president obama . his campaign is out with his second video this week hammering the president for saying the economy has quote, hit some bumps on the road to recovery.

    >> i'm an american.

    >> i'm an american.

    >> i'm an american.

    >> i'm an american.

    >> i'm an american.

    >> not a bump in the road.

    >> former pennsylvania governor ed rendell is an msnbc analyst and michael steele . let's start with mitt romney , shall we? he told a joke in front of some unemployed people in tampa. let me play that segment for you.

    >> i should also tell my story, i'mal unemployed.

    >> a lot better than what we have.

    >> but i have my sights on a particular job i'm looking for.

    >> the dnc chair deby wasserman schultz and others jumped all over him saying it's not funny if you don't have a job. i'm wondering governor rendell, if this is where democrats want to go? it seemed like the people in that room got a joke.

    >> yeah. i think we all have a tendency including the media and those of us in politics we all have a tendency to overemphasize things. i don't think that's going to do governor romney any harm. was it insensitive? i don't think he meant it to be insensitive. i think he meant it as a joke and it was taken as a joke. i think governor romney is trying to do the front runner strategy to stay above the fray of the republican primaries and try to make it in people's minds romney versus obama. it's a good attempt. i don't think it's going to work. i think he's going to have to lock horns with his republican opponents sooner or later .

    >> sometimes the media or people in the other party grab on to things. sometimes the candidates themselves and i think tim pawlenty is an example of this. he had what seemed like a great line in the debate, obamney care before the debate on the sunday talkers. in the debate he backed away from it. now he's tweeting. on seizing debate opportunity me zero, mitt one. on doing health care reform the right way as governor, me one, mitt zero. and then he took this shot, take a listen.

    >> i should have been much more clear during the debate. i don't think we can have a nominee that was involved in the development and construction of obama care and then continues to defend it.

    >> i think you can prosecute the political case against president obama if you are a co-conspirator and one of the main charges against the president.

    >> why won't he let this go?

    >> it's interesting. you're absolutely right. he had that moment. it was set up perfectly and you take that shot. you don't leave it hanging in the air . now to try to recover from that and try to get up that hill again is much tougher. it's less credible. people don't take it as seriously because you mean it now. you didn't mean it then. tim pawlenty 's got a little work to do here. fortunately it's early. in the beginning of the summer.

    >> here's my question, it is early. and you know, most of america's worried about where they're going to go on summer vacation and all that stuff. the question to the people who count. the people who are the bundlers, the big contributors are they watching?

    >> yes, they are. it is problematic there. it does translit the folks who are going to write the big checks and bundle more checks for you are inspired and move to act on your behalf. if they see you blink, it causes them to pause. that's why you see right now donors across the spectrum of the party not gravitating towards anyone. a little bit of action here. as the government can tell you when you're playing at this level and the speed at the presidential level, you've got to come to your game quick. you've got to be prepared. those donors you've got them in your sights. if not, the next guy's going to get them from you.

    >> the donors are going to mitt romney right now. governor rendell, is that who the white house is most worried about right now?

    >> i think that we as a part are probably most worried about romney ticket with someone like a pawlenty or rubio on the ticket or huntsman. that would be a very strong ticket. it would be the alternative ticket. it's acceptable to most americans. they may not get excited about it. if they come to the conclusion that president obama can't continue to lead, that's an acceptable alternative. so that i think is the scariest scenario for us. let me say this, number one, it's far too early to say what the economy's going to be like in september of next year. that's when it comes. not september of this year. but september of next year. it's also far too early to rule tim pawlenty out like some of the wlogs have done. tim's an impressive guy. let's everyone remember in 2007 hillary clinton dominated 2007 . every aspect. every poll. every donor. she dominated 2007 . if you just looked at 2007 , hillary clinton was the nominee.

    >> funny how events have a way of getting in the way of destiny. good to see both of you. thanks

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