OSKALOOSA, Iowa — The economy, economy, economy, right? Not always in this presidential election.
For some voters in pivotal states, issues such as wind energy tax credits or coal-industry jobs may win the day. Both President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are talking local topics everywhere they go, showing how a fierce national race can lead the candidates to play to, and in some cases get dragged into, issues affecting voters right down to their doorsteps.
During a three-day bus tour through Iowa, Obama has gone out of his way to highlight Romney's opposition to the renewal of wind production tax credits that have drawn support from Iowa Republicans including Gov. Terry Branstad and Sen. Charles Grassley. The credits have been in place for 20 years – Grassley authored the bill in the Senate – but are set to expire this year, threatening about 37,000 jobs nationally.
"My opponent wants to end tax credits for wind energy producers. He's said that new sources of energy like wind are `imaginary,'" Obama said Tuesday. "His running mate calls them a `fad.'" Obama toured a wind farm in Haverhill, Iowa, inspecting several wind turbines on the property.
Romney, in turn, has painted Obama as being hostile to coal producers, an important job provider in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. "If you don't believe in coal, if you don't believe in energy independence, then say it," Romney said Tuesday in Beallsville, Ohio, standing near a bulldozer filled with coal and hung with a sign that read, "Coal Country Stands with Mitt."
In survey after survey, the economy gets top billing in the 2012 election. But both Obama and Romney recognize that, as former U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." Indeed, local topics often can carry more weight than the national storyline.
That explains why both campaigns are using local issues to tailor their economic-focused pitches in ways that might help them connect with a military family in Ohio, a farmer in Iowa or a coal worker in Pennsylvania.
Obama has stressed his commitment to clean energy jobs that have sprouted in Iowa and other states like Nevada, Colorado and Ohio, while stressing efforts to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan find work. Romney, in turn, has given his TV ads a local flavor as he argues that Obama's energy policies and military budget could wreck the economic bases of many communities.
Small, rural towns dot the landscapes of many closely contested states, including Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and New Hampshire, placing a priority on closer-to-home issues that might sway a few thousands voters at a time.
"In our rural community, we're looking at which candidate is going to take care of the real Iowa," said Rob Hach, a Republican wind energy consultant from Storm Lake who met with Obama last year and says he plans to vote for the president because of his support of the tax issue.
Seeing a divide between Romney and fellow Republicans, Obama has played up his support for wind tax credits, an issue that has drawn major attention locally and led Grassley to say at a forum in Burlington, Iowa, last week that Romney's stance "was just like a knife in my back."
Obama's campaign has aired radio ads that accuse Romney of "putting Iowa jobs in jeopardy."
During a stop in Des Moines last week, Romney promoted "renewables, wind, solar, ethanol – you name it; we've got to take advantage of all of them." But he stayed away from discussing the wind energy tax credits.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said Tuesday that the former Massachusetts governor would help wind production by "promoting policies that remove regulatory barriers, support free enterprise and market-based competition and reward technological innovation."
On such issues, Obama also has the benefit of the White House.
As he flew to Jacksonville, Fla., for a campaign rally last month, his administration announced plans to speed up port expansion projects in the north Florida city and elsewhere.
And shortly after he arrived in Iowa, the president toured a drought-stricken farm in the Missouri Valley and announced plans by his Agriculture Department to buy up millions of dollars of meat as a way to help farmers.
But the president also has to defend his record.
When he arrived in Mansfield, Ohio, last month, C27-J military transport planes sat outside a large hangar when Air Force One landed at the airport. Proposed budget cuts have threatened the aircraft's future and hundreds of jobs based at the airport, meeting stiff resistance from Ohio lawmakers.
The White House stressed that Obama was committed to working with the Defense Department to "find a mission" for the Air National Guard base, but the local storyline played prominently during Obama's visit.
In Ohio, Republicans have pointed to the treatment of about 20,000 white-collar workers and retirees from auto parts supplier Delphi, which was spun off from General Motors. Many white-collar workers lost pension benefits while the pensions of union-affiliated employees and retirees were preserved during the auto bailout administered during the Obama administration.
"I feel absolutely betrayed," said Tom Rose, a former Delphi worker on a conference called arranged by the Republican National Committee.
Republicans have tried to put Obama on the defensive on other issues, including coal. GOP officials routinely cast Obama's policies as detrimental to coal, which is responsible for more than 40 percent of U.S. electricity production. Obama's advisers say that coal jobs have increased on his watch and are at their highest levels in 15 years.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has sparred with the mining industry over Clean Water Act-related permits, while Obama's administration has tried to cast its regulations as commonsense steps to reduce pollution that causes asthma and other lung problems.
Romney has tied coal jobs in Appalachia to a broader energy argument, saying he will make the U.S. energy independent from Venezuelan and Middle Eastern oil by the end of his second term. And he says the local issue could have much bigger consequences.
"To win Ohio, (Obama's) got to win eastern Ohio," Romney said in Beallsville. "And he's got to get the votes of the people in these communities all around us here. And you're not going to let that happen."
Kasie Hunt reported from Beallsville, Ohio. Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont and Philip Elliott in Des Moines, Iowa, and Brian Bakst in Minneapolis contributed to this report.