President Barack Obama headed deeper into the electoral battlegrounds of the South on Tuesday on a campaign-style bus tour that has underscored the steep challenges he faces to win re-election next year.
The second day of Obama's slow-rolling journey, billed by the White House as part of his nationwide push to get his jobs plan past Republicans in Congress, remained focused on courting voters in politically pivotal North Carolina and Virginia.
Obama is using the road trip not only to test out a sharper, more populist message as he seeks a second term but also to gauge whether the two traditionally conservative states he won in the 2008 election can stay in his column in 2012.
All indications are it could be a daunting task for Obama, whose poll numbers have fallen to the lows of his presidency amid public discontent over the stalled U.S. economy and high unemployment.
Obama, whose re-election may hinge on his ability to spur hiring, is pressing Republicans back in Washington to pass his $447 billion jobs package in "bite-size pieces" after they shot it down as a whole in Congress last week.
His strategy is to force Republicans to accept his proposals or be painted as obstructionists in the way of economic recovery as campaigning for the November 2012 presidential and congressional elections heats up.
Republicans, who see Obama's plan as laden with wasteful spending and job-killing tax hikes on wealthier Americans, have accused the Democratic president of electoral gamesmanship.
Their impasse has extended the deadlock that brought the United States to the brink of default in August until Democrats and Republicans agreed on the outlines of a deficit-cutting plan as part of a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.
As Obama's black armored bus rolled along, there was little denying the shift into full campaign mode in what political experts see as must-win states for him next year.
Speeches to wildly cheering North Carolina crowds on an airport tarmac and in a high school gym on Monday, the start of his three-day tour, were marked by full-throated attacks on Republicans he exhorted to "do the right thing" on jobs.
There were choreographed stops, like Obama buying Halloween candy at a family-owned general store, and presidential moments, like when he lifted a one-year-old from his mother's arms and pronounced him a "good-looking boy."
But a lunchtime visit to a barbecue restaurant demonstrated North Carolina's mixed views on the president's record. A local lawyer urged Obama to roll back regulations on business and a Baptist pastor complained about bank bailouts.
Even some of his Democratic supporters voiced doubts about his prospects for holding onto North Carolina in 2012 — a concern that also extends to some Western and Midwestern swing states.
Obama will deliver a speech at a community college in Jamestown, North Carolina, on Tuesday before crossing into Virginia for the final day and a half of his tour.
North Carolina and Virginia had been solid Republican strongholds until Obama carried both states in 2008, but polls now show him in danger of losing them.
A recent Elon University poll put Obama's approval rating at 42 percent in North Carolina, where Democrats will convene their presidential convention next summer.
A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed Obama's approval ratings at 45 percent in Virginia and put Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in a statistical dead-heat with him in a theoretical matchup.
Obama's bus tour was taking place just over a year before the election, a time when incumbent presidents generally are spending their campaign time raising money.
Obama's focus on retail politicking at this stage suggests he realizes he has a tough road in 2012 and has to start early to hammer his message home.