Southern Democrats suffered big losses in last year's midterm elections. Twenty Democrats in Congress from across the region lost their seats and Republicans seized control of chambers in North Carolina, Louisiana and Virginia. Republicans picked up 17 state House seats, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Republicans view the strategy as a sign of larger problems for Obama's team in the Upper Midwest and Rust Belt, which Obama swept in 2008, and in Western states won by Obama, like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
"He's in a world of hurt in the Great Lakes. There's no doubt about it. They're right to look for places that might offset that. But they don't have a happy hunting ground," said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman. "They need to shore up the Southwest and Southeast — Virginia and North Carolina — in hopes of offsetting losses they're going to sustain in the Great Lakes."
Republicans have called the bus tour nothing more than an early jump on the 2012 campaign. "Going down there on the taxpayer's dime, calling it not a campaign event and then attacking Republicans is probably the worst overreach I've observed in the years that I've been in the Congress," Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama's 2008 Republican opponent, told reporters Tuesday.
Democratic presidential candidates have had trouble in the South since Carter swept his home region to win the White House in 1976. Bill Clinton won his home state of Arkansas, along with Louisiana and Tennessee during his two presidential campaigns — he also carried Georgia in 1992 and Florida in 1996 — but Al Gore and John Kerry both came up empty in the South.
In 2008, Obama blitzed North Carolina with millions of dollars of television ads, a large staff and an emphasis on early voting. He boosted turnout among black voters and took advantage of demographic shifts in the state, especially in a stretch from Charlotte to Raleigh along Interstate 85 where many retirees from northern states have moved.
In Virginia, Obama was helped by a strong turnout among young people, broad support from Hispanics and black voters and increases over Kerry's performance in every region of the state's western slice. The state is quickly becoming one of the nation's most competitive states in politics, with statewide campaigns typically won and lost in fast-growing areas outside the suburbs of Northern Virginia; in the region surrounding Richmond, the state's capital; and in the Virginia Beach area, which includes large pockets of black voters.
Dave Beattie, a Florida-based Democratic pollster who has worked on campaigns throughout the South, said Obama will need to maximize turnout among black and Hispanic voters, excite the Democratic base but also "show the voters in the middle that don't like politics that he's really working for them."
Obama will lavish more attention to the weeks ahead. Next month, he is paying homage to something many Tar Heels hold dear — the University of North Carolina men's basketball team. The president plans to attend the Carrier Classic on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego, where North Carolina will face Michigan State.
Thomas reported from Washington.
Associated Press writers Shannon McCaffrey in Atlanta and Donna Cassata in Washington and Jennifer Agiesta, deputy polling director for The Associated Press, contributed to this report.
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