WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama surveys damage from raging wildfires and thanks first responders in Colorado, he also will be trying to show voters in one of the nation's most tightly contested political swing states that he is a compassionate leader who can command in a crisis.
Though Obama will spend just three hours Friday on the ground in Colorado, his cross-country dash underscores the enormous power of incumbency in an election year. The president has resources at his disposal that Republican challenger Mitt Romney simply can't compete with, from the ability to fly Air Force One anywhere in the country on short notice to the authority to dole out federal funds to help disaster-stricken states recover.
Obama declared a "major disaster" in the state early Friday and promised federal aid.
By midday, he will arrive in Colorado Springs, where officials say more than 30,000 people have been evacuated in what is now the most destructive wildfire in state history. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the blaze that has encroached on the state's second-largest city and threatened the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The White House says Obama is making the trip to get a firsthand look at the wildfire damage and to assess whether additional federal resources are necessary.
But election-year political concerns also create an imperative for Obama to be on the ground.
Less than five months before Election Day, the presidential contest in Colorado is very close, and Obama and Romney are each looking to swing the state in their favor anyway they can.
About 46 percent of registered voters backed Obama, 42 percent backed Romney and 8 percent were undecided in an NBC News/Marist poll conducted in late May.
Both sides are devoting significant money and manpower to the state, which tends to swing between the two political parties in presidential elections. Obama easily carried Colorado in 2008. So did his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, in 2004.
Obama also has walked tornado-stricken streets in Missouri and Alabama, and met with flood victims in Tennessee, all states that voted against him in the 2008 presidential election.
Every decision the Obama White House makes to send him to a disaster zone is done under the shadow of Bush's botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which irrevocably damaged his presidency.
Bush was widely criticized as detached and uncaring when he viewed the flooding of New Orleans from the air rather than meeting with people on the ground. White House officials said at the time that they didn't want Bush's presence to distract from the recovery efforts.
Obama has faced criticism that Friday's trip could divert time and resources away from the effort to fight the fires.
"While President Obama certainly has the right to come to Colorado whenever he chooses, I believe his visit tomorrow will be a distraction from what has to be our only priority, which is containing and then defeating these fires," said Bill Owens, the former Republican governor of Colorado.
White House press secretary Jay Carney rejected the criticism. "We are not in any way pulling resources away," he told reporters aboard Air Force One as it flew to Colorado. "We make sure that we don't."
Colorado's current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said state officials from both parties support Obama's visit.
"They said, 'You're right, this is not a political thing. This is what the president of the United States should be doing in a situation like this,'" Hickenlooper said.
Yet Colorado, with huge swaths of independent-minded voters, does hold significant political weight in November. In a tight election, the state's nine electoral votes could make the difference between a win or a loss.
Obama's campaign and a political action committee supporting him have spent more than $8 million on television advertisements in the state, according to Republican officials who track ad buys. Romney and outside groups backing his candidacy have spent more than $4 million.
The NBC/Marist poll found that Obama has advantages with Colorado voters on social issues and national security, while Romney has the advantage on reducing the national debt. The majority of voters in Colorado say the economy is their top issue in the November, but they are evenly split over which candidate would be better at handling the economy.
Colorado's unemployment rate, at 8.1 percent last month, is just below the national average.
comments on this story
Obama's campaign also is seeking to rally support among Colorado's growing numbers of Hispanics and young people, two groups where the president has an edge over Romney. The presumptive GOP nominee sees an opportunity to make up ground in the state's traditionally Republican rural areas.
His campaign also hopes to appeal to middle-class voters in the vast Denver suburbs, who may be unhappy with the economy. However, Obama has an advantage among this group's key segment: suburban women.
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont and AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC