By STEVE PEOPLES
MANCHESTER, N.H. — President Barack Obama will visit a changed New Hampshire today.
The independent-minded presidential swing state he won in 2008 has shifted distinctly to the right since his last visit nearly two years ago. The local economy is struggling to grow and voters are increasingly unhappy with the president’s leadership.
“He’s not getting my vote — no way,” construction worker Norman Berube, a 49-year-old registered independent, said while waiting for a booth at the Airport Diner recently. “This country is worse off.”
Others say the same.
Recent polls show that, if the election were held today, Obama would lose by roughly 10 percentage points to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the leading contender for the GOP nomination. That’s quite a slide for an incumbent who beat Republican Sen. John McCain here by nearly the same margin just three years ago.
Still, a year before Obama’s re-election, Democrats aren’t panicking.
In fact, Obama’s campaign is quietly confident that he can re-ignite voters’ passion the more they see him, which explains why Obama is venturing to Central High School to promote elements of his jobs plan that’s stalled in a divided Congress.
His visit comes just as a special deficit-reduction supercommittee in Washington is on the brink of failing to reach an agreement on how to save taxpayers $1.2 trillion over the coming decade. A fundamental divide over how much to raise taxes — a salient issue in low-tax New Hampshire — was proving too high a hurdle to overcome.
With finger pointing beginning in Washington, Obama was heading to New Hampshire, which his surrogates recently have showered with attention, as Republican candidates wielding anti-Obama messages swarm the state ahead of the Jan. 10 primary.
“There have been a lot of Republicans up here,” said Kathy Sullivan, a New Hampshire-based member of the Democratic National Committee. “It’s a good time for the people of New Hampshire to hear from the president.”
On Monday alone, four of the eight GOP contenders — Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — campaigned in New Hampshire.
Romney, speaking to voters in Nashua, used Obama’s visit to bash the president anew.
“I’d like to hear what he has to say,” Romney said. “It’s very clear, we’re not better off than we were when he came into office.”
Unemployment in the state was at 5.4 percent in September, well below the national average of 9 percent.
Romney is expected Tuesday to begin airing his first TV ads in New Hampshire to reinforce that message. And while Obama’s job approval numbers here are weak, more alarming is polling suggesting that independents — a key voting bloc in the presidential race — have swung decidedly away from Obama after lifting him to victory in the state and across the country.
Independent voters helped Republicans sweep the state’s congressional elections and win veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. It was a dramatic shift for a state many believed had been shifting to the left over the last decade.
“New Hampshire is obviously going to be an important state in the general election, and it’s a state where voters keep pretty close tabs on how often you visit,” said Reid Cherlin, a former spokesman for Obama in New Hampshire and at the White House. “The White House sees New Hampshire as open-minded and independent — the kind of state that may be more open to Obama’s jobs pitch and less inclined to be governed by the passions of the moment, like tea party ideology.”
In a likely nod to independents, Obama is expected Tuesday to prod Congress to extend a temporary cut in payroll taxes that has enjoyed bipartisan support. The tax cut will expire at the end of the year unless Congress extends it again.
Obama supports an extension and on Monday previewed his likely pitch in New Hampshire.
“There’s no reason not to vote for these tax cuts,” he said. “If Congress doesn’t act by the end of the year, then the typical family’s taxes is going to go up by roughly $1,000. That’s the last thing our middle class and our economy needs right now.”
Obama last visited New Hampshire in February of 2010 for a factory tour and town hall-style meeting.
But the time that has passed since then doesn’t mean his team has forgotten about the state that offers just four electoral votes and has backed the winner in four of the last five general elections.
Surrogates have been spreading Obama’s message. They include top political adviser David Axelrod, who addressed students in Manchester in late September, and Vice President Joe Biden, who has visited twice since then.
The campaign also has been ramping up its operations.
Spokesman Frank Benenati said more than 1,000 political events, including phone banks and voter registration drives, have been held since April. Supporters recently held 18 house parties across the state in one day. The campaign has an office in Manchester and will soon open another in Portsmouth.