DES MOINES, Iowa -- A few minutes past 8 a.m. on Thursday, Mark Cooper, 57, walked into the Polk County auditor's office with a plastic travel mug in his hand and cast one of the first in-person ballots in the 2012 presidential election.
Cooper's long brown hair, beard, and leather jacket made him look more like a member of Hells Angels than what he is: a state chapter leader for the AFL-CIO and a member of the Polk County Central Committee.
He was the first to arrive, around 7:15 a.m., but soon a long line of around 200 people formed behind him, almost all of them wearing stickers distributed by President Obama's reelection campaign with the message: "Be the First!"
Iowa was the first swing state to begin early voting, though not the first to begin voting overall. Ohio will follow when it opens up the polls on Tuesday. All the other swing states start their early voting near the end of October.
The Obama campaign made a concerted effort to get supporters to the polls in all 99 Iowa counties on the first day of early voting, to build on the candidate's growing momentum in the state. But they expected some Republicans at the polls. As Obama's state director, Brad Anderson, and communications director, Erin Seidler, stood outside the auditor's office, they expressed surprise at the lack of any discernible presence for supporters of the GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.
Many are marveling that Romney is falling behind in this state. If Obama wins Iowa when all the votes are counted, it will be a symbolic and significant loss for Romney. He will have missed a chance to not only take back a state that went overwhelmingly for Obama four years ago, but also an opportunity to deal a psychic blow to the president.
Obama forged a personal connection with Iowa voters in 2007 and 2008, vaulting past Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary by out-campaigning and out-organizing her here and then winning the Iowa caucuses.
There was no better place this year, then, for Romney to capitalize on disappointment with the president, to hold that discontent up for the state and even the nation to see, and to use it as a weapon against an incumbent who has been highly vulnerable.
"Because we're the state that launched him, we feel the disappointment in this president more personally and intensely than anywhere else. Many Iowans want their votes back," said David Kochel, who is running Romney's Iowa campaign.
There is still a chance that Romney could seize on this sentiment. Even Cooper, the Obama supporter who cast the first vote for Obama in Des Moines, said many of the blue-collar union workers he speaks with have been "less than overjoyed" with Obama.
But with 40 days until the voting ends, Obama owns the momentum in the Hawkeye State, in part because of how the race has played out nationally and in part because of how the president has campaigned in the state.
Polls have shown Obama opening up a larger lead over Romney in Iowa the past six weeks, from a two-point spread in Pollster.com's average to now more than five points. Romney aides dismissed an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month showing Obama up by eight points, but conceded they are down and are looking to extricate themselves from a dangerous riptide.
An influential Iowa Republican told The Huffington Post this week that the race feels as if it is "slipping away" from Romney. He did not want to give such a frank assessment on the record.
And Democrats have taken some satisfaction from the fact that they hold a huge lead in the number of absentee ballots requested so far, with 119,318 to 24,909 for Republicans as of Wednesday night, along with 41,366 requested by independent voters.
But the Obama campaign expects that gap to shrink. The Romney campaign says its strategy is to focus on getting less-reliable voters to turn out earlier in the process -- essentially the opposite strategy of the Democrats, who are working on getting their most reliable supporters to the polls in the first week or two of early voting. That way, Democrats said, they can focus much of their energy and resources on voters who might be harder to persuade and get to the polls in the days leading up to Nov. 6.
One ray of light for the Romney campaign is that Republicans hold a small edge over Democrats in voter registration, a big difference from four years ago. There were 620,868 registered Republicans to 602,636 Democrats in early September, compared to November 2008, when Democrats had 698,839 registered voters and Republicans had 592,397.
Democrats have not always been so optimistic about the Hawkeye State. Over lunch this summer, a senior official at the Democratic National Committee said, without a moment's hesitation, that Iowa worried him more than almost any other swing state.
Jeff Link, a veteran Democratic Iowa consultant, said that earlier this past summer, the state was "a jump ball."
Iowa held great potential for Romney due to a few significant reasons, and the ball is certainly still in play.
There was a strong conservative backlash against Obama's policies in the 2010 midterms, particularly his health care overhaul, and on the issue of the national debt, which is a special concern for Iowans. The state House swung to Republicans, as did the governor's mansion, and the GOP made big gains in the state Senate. Additionally that year, social conservatives waged a successful effort to oust three state Supreme Court judges in response to a ruling to legalize same-sex marriage.
During the midterms, and then over 2011 and into 2012 as Republican presidential hopefuls came to the state with increasing frequency, Obama was battered again and again.
"I still think that everyone underestimated just how damaging the months leading up to the caucuses were for the president," Link said. "Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, [Herman] Cain, [Newt] Gingrich, they were not training their fire on Romney until the very end and they all were just pounding Obama. And they were really focused on debt and deficit too."
"It was mostly debt and deficit. And that was really taking its toll," he said.
In addition, Iowa has few ethnic minorities, depriving Obama of one of his strongest voting blocs. In the 2010 Census, Iowa was 91 percent white, five percent Hispanic, and three percent black.
"When we talk coalitions in Iowa we start talking chiropractors," said one Republican with experience running statewide campaigns.
But Romney's campaign has been second-guessed about the way they've deployed their candidate in the state, sending him to Des Moines far more than any other part of the state.
"If he were running for Polk County Supervisor, I’d pat him on the back and tell him to keep up the good work. Unfortunately he needs a statewide victory in November," wrote Craig Robinson, a former state party official who now runs a political blog, The Iowa Republican.
Robinson told HuffPost that "how the Romney campaign has approached Iowa has allowed Obama to reengage and to reinvent himself."
A three-day bus tour that Obama took through the state in mid-August seems to have been a significant turning point for Obama in the state.
"I think there was a palpable difference in people's feelings about him before that and after that because he was here for three days straight, he stopped at the state fair and in small towns," Link said. "It sort of reminded people of the kind of thing he did in 2007, and it reminded people, 'Oh yeah this is the guy we knew and liked. He's not just the guy behind the blue drape and the [presidential] seal.'"
Romney's trips to Des Moines have been limited in impact, political observers in the state from both parties said, because those who live in and around the state capital are unimpressed by presidential candidates, or even the president, coming to town. Obama, meanwhile, used the bus tour to get to small towns like Oskaloosa (population 11,538) and Boone (population 12,635), where a visit had maximum impact.
Romney, Link said, "is not doing things you would expect a challenger to do and Obama is doing things you would not expect an incumbent to do."
Obama's Iowa bus tour was interpreted at the time as a sign that he was deeply worried about a state he won by nine points four years ago. One Republican speculated that Obama did it less for strategic purposes and more to get out of a "funk."
But, he admitted, "I agree that it helped."
In addition to boosting Obama in Iowa, the bus tour came at a moment when the national race was at one of its closest points, with Obama less than a point up on Romney in the Pollster.com average. Since that time, Obama has steadily expanded his lead – with the numbers narrowing momentarily only during the Republican convention in late August – to where it is nationally now, at 48.9 percent to 44.3 percent.
Romney has not only failed to build any sense of relationship with Iowa voters, he has also failed to drive a consistent message, Robinson said.
"He just kind of wanders through issue after issue," he said.
Shawn McCoy, Romney's Iowa spokesman, disputed Robinson charge.
"Throughout this campaign, Governor Romney has consistently discussed his plans to strengthen the middle class and grow our economy," McCoy said. "Mitt Romney will succeed where President Obama has failed by decreasing government spending, ending burdensome regulations on Iowa's small businesses, delivering North American energy independence and creating 12 million jobs in his first term alone."
Even among Democrats, there is shock that Romney is not doing better in Iowa.
"On debt, why isn't Romney winning that argument?" said one state operative, who works with the Obama campaign. On the condition of anonymity, the operative said that Obama is vulnerable in Iowa on his handling of the deficit and debt.
That kind of sentiment seemed to pervade many Obama supporters in line outside the auditor's office on Thursday morning. They were cautiously optimistic more than anything, and far from jubilant.
"You never know. Things could change. You can't rest on your laurels. You have to move forward. You cannot be over confident," said Betty sandy, a 67-year old Presbyterian minister, musician and choir director, who is a neighborhood team leader for the Obama campaign.
This caution signals how difficult a state Iowa has been for Obama to win over in 2012. But it also may be the kind of outlook that will help keep Obama supporters sharp and working hard through election day, depriving Romney of what was a prime target.
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