By THOMAS BEAUMONT and KEN THOMAS
DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa magic that launched Barack Obama to the presidency four years ago has all but faded.
Soured by the direction of the nation and its economy, Iowa has drifted away from Obama since his 2008 caucus victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton made him the Democratic front-runner. And while he carried the state in the general election by a comfortable margin that year, polls this year have shown voters narrowly preferring Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who plans to wage his own major effort in Iowa.
Today, the Democrat who emerged Cinderella-like with a hope-filled message four years ago is sharply attacking Romney’s economic credentials and his ability to grasp voters’ everyday concerns.
Obama’s visit Thursday to blue-collar Newton, Iowa, and his Des Moines campaign rally near where Romney once declared that corporations are people, underscored the president’s own vulnerability with working-class voters and his effort to identify with the middle class.
In Newton, once the prosperous headquarters of Maytag appliances, Obama visited a wind-turbine plant to push his alternative energy agenda and delivered a message that could as well have applied to all of Iowa. “Yeah, we’re facing tough times, but we’re getting through them, we’re getting though them together,” he said.
While offering only six of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, how Iowa voters ultimately judge Obama is expected to be an important factor in the race.
“Last time it was a lot more exciting. It was a new thing,” said Nancy Bobo, a Des Moines Obama volunteer and one of his earliest Iowa backers in 2008. “Today, we’re all just very serious.”
Obama was visiting a former Maytag Corp. appliance plant in Newton, a town devastated by the plant’s closing in 2005. The plant now houses TPI Composites, a wind-turbine blade manufacturer.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has made the struggling economy the centerpiece of his campaign. But Obama can point to comparatively low 5.1 percent unemployment in Iowa, where stable financial services and strong agriculture sectors buoyed the economy while manufacturing has struggled to rebound.
Obama’s Des Moines rally, his first in Iowa since announcing his candidacy for re-election, is symbolically set for the Iowa State Fairgrounds, within steps of where Romney declared last year that “corporations are people.”
Romney made the comment as he argued against raising taxes as a way of shoring up Social Security and Medicare.
Members of the audience interrupted, calling for increased taxes on corporations, and Romney responded: “Corporations are people, my friend. ... Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.”
The comment has been used by opponents to characterize Romney, a former private equity firm executive, as more comfortable in the boardroom than the shop floor.
Obama’s campaign has emphasized episodes in which Romney’s former firm closed plants and laid off workers, and has aired a stinging TV ad on the subject in Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Obama himself has struggled to attract blue-collar voters, keys to winning struggling swing working-class regions such as southeast Ohio, western Pennsylvania and rural Iowa. Newton is the seat of Jasper County, Iowa, where unemployment was 7.1 percent in April, higher than Iowa’s average but down sharply from last winter.
While Iowa is known for its first-in-the-nation caucuses, it also is a coveted general election state, despite its small electoral total. Democrat Al Gore carried the state by less than a percentage point in 2000, followed by Republican George W. Bush’s 2-point victory in 2004.
The state shows a candidate’s ability to win support in the heartland. It could help Romney in his effort to peel back states Obama won in 2008, or help Obama put Romney away.
Obama has already spent more than $2.6 million on advertising, a pace as aggressive as in any other battleground state. He’s been a regular visitor, and was making his second trip in a month.
Yet the president’s approval rating here has been stuck below 50 percent for over two years, softened in part by criticism from Republicans campaigning for Iowa’s leadoff caucuses.
Republican Terry Branstad took back the governorship easily from Democrat Chet Culver in 2010, as the GOP won back the state House and came close in the Senate.
Polls show Iowans also have become increasingly bothered by federal spending, an issue Romney stoked in Des Moines last week in a visit where he promised to shrink the deficit.
Iowans, many of whom met Obama in the 2008 campaign, also are disappointed by what they hoped would be a transcendent presidency, said J. Ann Selzer, the longtime director of The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll.
“You hear disaffection. You hear them say, ‘This isn’t what I paid for,”’ Selzer said. “The guy they sent there to recast things wasn’t able to do it.”
Obama made his latest trip to a swing state while his campaign manager, in Washington, privately updated Senate Democrats on the state of the race. Officials said Jim Messina told lawmakers the president has several possible paths to collecting the 270 electoral votes he needs for victory in November.
But Messina also noted that Romney, the Republican Party and allied super PACs are likely to have a great deal of money to spend. Obama vastly outspent Republican John McCain in winning the White House four years ago, an advantage that Democrats appear unlikely to command in 2012.
Romney senses the opening.
He, too, has cultivated an Iowa network. Indeed, he campaigned aggressively for the 2008 caucuses during his narrowly losing bid for the state’s delegates. And his campaign has begun running television ads in Iowa.
Romney and the Republican National Committee have hired state directors and are hiring staff to run a dozen or more offices planned for Iowa.
While Obama campaigned here, Romney spent Thursday visiting an inner city charter school in west Philadelphia. Romney was to spend the weekend in La Jolla, Calif., with his family.