* President needs Iowa but crowds are smaller than 2008
* Weaker economy may affect his chances
* Republicans have more registered voters for this election
By Jeff Mason
WATERLOO, Iowa, Aug 17 He avoids the State Fair
bumper cars, speaks to smaller groups, and makes fewer promises
than he did in 2008.
Four years after Iowa propelled President Barack Obama to
the White House, he needs the state more than ever, but a tour
through his old campaign stomping grounds this week revealed a
much different political climate - and a much different
candidate -- than the Iowa and the Obama of four years ago.
The crowds are smaller and his motorcade is larger than when
he beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa and took a huge step toward
becoming his party's nominee.
The economy in Iowa is rougher now and even the weather is
worse in the drought-hit state.
Enthusiasm for Obama -- still high among Democrats -- is
wavering among the independents and Republicans who formed part
of the coalition that got him first elected.
Obama's three-day swing through Iowa was his longest
campaign trip in one state so far this year. He spoke wistfully
about how his life had changed since he was a comparably unknown
candidate seeking the highest office in the land.
"The last time I went to the State Fair, Secret Service let
me do the bumper cars. ... I wasn't president yet, so I could do
that," he said to laughter at a campaign event in Council Bluffs
on Monday. "But not this time."
When he made it to the fair in Des Moines later that day, he
wasn't allowed to get anywhere near the rides, though he did
make a beeline for the Bud Light stand, where he bought beer for
himself and a few bystanders.
Beer was a common theme throughout the tour. Much to the
delight of the crowds, he told nearly every group he addressed
that he had had a beer and pork chops at the fair.
"He's a real person. His whole family -- everybody can
relate to him," said Jan Bilsten, 57, a Democrat from Cedar
"I like to drink beer. Everybody likes to relax with a glass
of wine or drink a beer," she said.
Obama's mentions of alcohol consumption could have been a
subtle attempt to contrast himself with Romney, a Mormon, who
does not drink.
Not everyone in Iowa was enthusiastic about Obama's
presence. One of the first men whose hand Obama tried to shake
at the fair told him "No, thank you," and turned away, scowling
as the president made his way down the street.
Such indifference is evident in the polls. An average of
polls by RealClearPolitics shows the Democrat up only 1
percentage point in Iowa over Republican Mitt Romney, his rival
in the Nov. 6 election.
"That enthusiasm that he saw the first time around just
isn't there," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at
the University of Iowa.
Hagle noted another, perhaps more worrying trend for Obama:
Republicans now have more registered voters in Iowa than
Democrats, overcoming the more than 100,000 registered voters
advantage in that Obama's party had after his victory in 2008.
DIFFERENT NUMBERS, SMALLER VENUES
So, just as he is doing in other swing states like Ohio and
Colorado, the president is targeting independents and
non-affiliated voters who might be swayed by an in-person visit.
In Marshalltown, roughly 555 people showed up to hear him
speak. In Oskaloosa, there were 852. In Boone, there were more
than 2,000, but the numbers are still a far cry from the many
thousands he drew at events four years ago.
"There is plenty of time for big rallies," a campaign
official said about the small crowd sizes.
"The president enjoys engaging with the crowds and knows
from experience that the people of Iowa like to lift the hood
and kick the tires -- the medium-sized venues allow him to do
The smaller venues have not prompted Obama to take questions
from those in attendance, however. In 2008 he regularly held
"town hall" style meetings as a way of introducing himself to
voters. Now his events remain strictly stage-managed.
He waves from the podium and shakes hands on the "rope
line," but his words come primarily from the text on his
Obama's policy positions have shifted, too. Despite
referencing the highest temperatures Iowa has seen on record
during a survey of drought-stricken corn crops, Obama did not
mention climate change once.
Fighting global warming was one of the president's key
policy promises in 2008, along with healthcare and financial
regulation reform. He achieved the latter two, but legislation
to curb greenhouse gases failed in the U.S. Senate.