Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
MANCHESTER, N.H. — President Barack Obama dashed into politically important New Hampshire Tuesday, seeking to steal the spotlight from Republican presidential candidates and challenging GOP lawmakers back in Washington to stand by their anti-tax pledges on one big measure.
He was greeted with a blunt message from Republican contender Mitt Romney, who bought campaign ads telling Obama, "Your policies have failed."
In his first trip to New Hampshire in nearly two years, the president was confronted by a state that has shifted sharply to the right since his victory here in the 2008 election. The state's crucial independent voters sided solidly with Republicans in the 2010 midterms, and recent polls suggest Obama would lose to Romney by 10 percentage points here if the election were held today.
Seeking to boost his appeal with independents in this low-tax state, Obama urged Congress to extend a Social Security payroll tax cut due to expire next month. In effect, he dared Republicans — many of whom have signed anti-tax pledges — to vote against an extension, a move the White House says would lead to a $1,000 tax hike on a family making $50,000 a year.
If lawmakers vote "no, your taxes go up. Yes, you get a tax cut," Obama told the crowd. "Which way do you think Congress should vote?"
"Don't be a Grinch. Don't vote to raise taxes on working Americans during the holidays," he said during his speech at a Manchester high school.
Democrats had hoped to tuck the payroll tax extension, as well as a renewal of jobless benefits, into an agreement from the congressional deficit-reduction supercommittee. But with that option off the table following the committee's collapse Monday, the White House plans to make a full-court press for a separate measure to extend the tax cuts before they expire at the end of the year — and set up Republicans as scapegoats if that doesn't happen.
Much of Obama's stop in Manchester was about trying to gain a foothold for his economic message in New Hampshire to balance the anti-Obama rhetoric from the Republican candidates swarming the state ahead of the Jan. 10 presidential primary. Obama's trip came on the same day that the GOP contenders were gathering in Washington for a foreign policy debate sure to focus on what they see as the president's failings.
Obama came face to face with the frustration of some New Hampshire voters, who are fed up with a local economy that is struggling to grow and increasingly unhappy with the president's leadership.
A group of protesters outside Manchester Central High School carried signs that read "Obama Isn't Working." And the president's speech was interrupted by a handful of people venting the frustrations of the Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread across to a number of cities.
Even some Obama supporters have sensed a shift in the state.
Naomi Preble, 62, backed Obama in the 2008 election, and the independent voter plans to vote for him again. But she said young people in New Hampshire have soured on the president.
"I think they're worried," Preble. "They don't see the strong leader they thought they elected."
Romney used Obama's trip as an opportunity to air his first 2012 television ads in the Granite State, and they were sharply critical of Obama's economic record. He also ran ads in New Hampshire newspapers that said to Obama, "I will be blunt. Your policies have failed."
Obama never mentioned his GOP challengers by name during his two-and-a-half-hour stop in New Hampshire, making only a veiled reference to their constant presence in this swing state.
"The next time you hear one of these folks from the other side coming and talking about raising your taxes, you just remind them that ever since I've gotten into office, I've lowered your taxes, haven't raised them," he said.
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