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President Obama begins a campaign-style bus tour Monday in North Carolina and Virginia to try to drum up support for his jobs bill and his re-election campaign.
He starts in the Tar Heel State, which he won by a narrow margin in 2008 and where he now faces a struggle to stay competitive for 2012.
Candidate Obama had just 14,177 votes to spare out of more than 4.3 million votes cast in North Carolina in 2008. That's just three-tenths of 1 percent. The state hadn't gone for a Democrat for president since 1976 — "when Jimmy Carter won as a nearby Southerner," says Eric Heberlig, who teaches political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Heberlig adds that the president's hold on North Carolina is tenuous at best.
"The challenge is that when you only won by 14,000 votes to begin with, you really have no margin for error," he says. "You lose any percentage of independent voters, you're now [in] the danger zone."
In one recent North Carolina poll, the incumbent was clearly in that zone. Barely a third of independent North Carolina voters approve of the job he's doing.
Concern About The Economy
The problem for Obama in North Carolina is the problem he faces everywhere: Unemployment in the state is 10.4 percent; businesses large and small are struggling.
Alex Rankin, who runs a small engineering and surveying firm in Concord, N.C., stood late last week at a new construction site — a rarity these days.
"It's not a huge contract, but it certainly has come in at a time that we were happy to have some additional work to do," Rankin says.
The last few years have been "a slog," he says. "I mean, the rest of the economy went into a recession — construction went into a depression. We've gone from 75 folks to about 20 folks, and that's typical for a lot of firms in our profession."
Rankin says the stimulus package brought some indirect business, but overall, things have not improved for his firm since 2008, when he voted for Obama.
Cabarrus County, where Concord is located and Rankin lives, did not go for Obama in 2008, but the contest was much closer than usual. Smaller margins for the GOP in conservative rural counties were a key to Obama's win in North Carolina — and now those rural counties are trending away from him.
Troubles With Business People, Students
Rankin says he'll give Obama another chance, but that's not the vibe John Cox, president of the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, picks up in room of local business people.
"You know, if you're [Jeffrey] Immelt, the guy that runs General Electric, it seems that President Obama would be the right guy. If you're Warren Buffett, I think the president's the right guy. But if ... you begin to look at the folks on the other side of the equation, he's not the right guy," Cox says.
Obama will try to alter that perception Monday as he tours North Carolina touting his job-creation plan. This is not a state where a strong union presence can mobilize potential supporters. So he'll have to rely all the more heavily on the young voters and African-Americans who tipped the scales for him in 2008.
Three years ago, the campus of historically black Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte was alive with first-time voters wearing Obama campaign buttons.
Students nowadays have other things on their mind.
"A lot of people are saying they're not voting at all," says Deborah Garlington, 20, a junior in graphic design. "I guess they're afraid that Obama didn't follow what he said he was going to do. That bothers a lot of people because they put their faith in him and I guess they feel let down."
Garlington says she'll still vote for Obama, but she doesn't have time to work on his campaign. She's too busy worrying about school and whether she'll be able to find a job when she graduates.