JAMESTOWN, N.C. — Three years after his surprising wins in Southern states, President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is doubling down in the region, hoping to turn changing demographics into electoral wins and offset potential losses in traditional swing states next year.
Obama's Southern strategy is at the heart of his three-day bus trip this week through North Carolina and Virginia. In 2008 he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in those Republican strongholds in a generation.
With 28 electoral votes between them, wins in North Carolina and Virginia could help Obama make up for defeats in Rust Belt states like Ohio and Indiana, which he won in 2008 but could be hard-pressed to carry next year.
The president's bus tour started Monday in Asheville, N.C., whose mountains have attracted retirees from the Northeast, and took Obama through rural swaths of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He spent the night in Greensboro, where four black students launched a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter to protest segregation in 1960, a year before Obama was born.
On Tuesday, Obama was making stops in rural Emporia, Va., and Hampton, Va., where the region's large number of black voters helped him carry the state three years ago. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were discussing veterans' issues on Wednesday at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va.
Both states have seen economic and demographic changes that could alter the politics. North Carolina's economy has shifted from textiles and tobacco to banking and research, while Virginia's population has boomed in the state's northern suburbs outside Washington, D.C., with the expansion of large defense contractors and firms tied to the federal government.
Along his bus tour, Obama was making unscheduled stops at restaurants and general stores, giving him a chance to engage in the type of personal politics that is so prevalent in presidential campaigns but hard to come by in the White House.
Obama was the first Democrat to carry Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and the first to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Yet picking up states in the South again could be difficult. Obama's poll numbers in North Carolina and Virginia are down, in line with national trends. A recent Elon University poll put the president's approval rating in North Carolina at 42 percent, and a Quinnipiac University poll had it at 45 percent in Virginia.
That has Obama's campaign putting both states near the top of its priority list and opening three offices in North Carolina and one in Virginia, with more to come. The Democratic Party will hold its convention in Charlotte, N.C., next summer, and North Carolina and Virginia are already showing up frequently on Obama's travel itinerary, a trend that is expected to continue through the election.
"My intention is to win North Carolina again like we did last time," Obama said in an interview Monday with Charlotte TV station WCNC. "It will be close because obviously folks are frustrated with the challenges that we still face in the economy."
Obama's Southern strategy extends beyond the two states.
His campaign plans to compete heavily in Florida, the ultra-swing state that decided the 2000 election, and campaign officials consider Georgia a place where they could challenge Republicans on their turf. Obama lost Georgia by 5 percentage points in 2008, but Democrats see potential in the influx of black and Hispanic voters in suburban areas outside Atlanta.
"It won't be easy," said Mike Berlon, chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party. "But we are working to register new voters and we think the demographics are on our side."
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