Mitt sees Midwest as path to 270

Mitt Romney is signaling that his path to the presidency runs through the Midwest.

A campaign bus tour through the region, Midwestern politicians seemingly moving up in the vice presidential sweepstakes and tightening poll numbers for President Obama in the Rust Belt indicate that the 2012 GOP standard-bearer is focusing his Electoral College strategy there.

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Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) have floated to the top of most “buzz lists” for vice president, while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others have slid, a sign Romney might prize a running mate who can help him connect with blue-collar voters over one who could appeal to Hispanics.

Romney spent the last few days barnstorming the region, hitting Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio — all states President Obama carried in 2008. The presumptive GOP nominee was joined by Portman, Ryan and Pawlenty during various legs of his tour.

Obama’s recent change in deportation policy sent his approval rating with Hispanic voters skyrocketing. Their large and growing populations in critical swing states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada make those states harder to win — and losses out there make the Midwest that much more crucial to Romney.

Saul Anuzis, a senior Michigan Republican strategist who was an early Romney backer, said the Midwest provided a big opportunity for Romney — and that if he chose one of his three recent road-trip partners as vice president, it would solidify his standing in the region.

“There’s renewed opportunity in the Midwest that hasn’t been there before,” said Anuzis. “I’d prefer him to pick someone who appeals to the Reagan Democrat, the cultural conservatives who are all over the Midwest. We have a natural constituency if we can make an argument to them. Pawlenty has that natural working-class background and would be vey useful and powerful in that regard, and Ryan and Portman have their own assets. Those guys play into the Midwestern strategy and should definitely be considered if the polls stay where they are.”

Obama has held solid leads in polls of Nevada and New Mexico, and consistent if narrow leads in Colorado.

On the other hand, polls show Romney’s star rising in a number of Midwestern states. Three of the last four public polls in Michigan show a dead heat, while polls in both Ohio and Iowa show close races. Despite Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) recent win in the recall election, Obama looks to have the advantage in the state: A Marquette University poll released Wednesday had him up 6 percentage points, in line with other recent polls there.

Romney victories in the Midwest, which has larger proportions of the older, culturally conservative white voters who have been the most resistant to Obama, could offset possible losses in the West, where burgeoning Hispanic populations and his hard-line immigration rhetoric during the primary have made it harder for him to win.

“A Midwest strategy is where they’re headed, and those three give them the strongest possible standing in the Midwest,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “They were figuring out whether they were going to push harder for the Southwest or Midwest, and Obama made that choice for them with his immigration move.”

A Romney spokesman refused to write off the Mountain West or speculate on the possible vice presidential shortlist, but indicated the candidate would work hard at winning in the Midwest.

“We’re competing in every battleground state,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. “We obviously recognize there are extremely important Midwestern swing states. including Michigan, Ohio and Iowa.”

While immigration is helping Obama in the Southwest, energy issues are hurting him in parts of the Midwest, especially in coal country in Ohio and western Pennsylvania, another region with a high number of culturally conservative Reagan Democrats.

Williams predicted a lot of focus on what he described as Obama’s “anti-coal” policies in the region.

“Gov. Romney has advocated a comprehensive energy policy that includes a focus on coal, while the president and his administration have actively tried to undermine coal energy and coal jobs,” he said.

But Obama’s campaign argued that Romney would face tough sledding in the region, pointing out that the economic recovery has been strongest in the Midwest and crediting Obama’s policies — especially his support of the auto bailout, which Romney opposed at the time — for helping Michigan and Ohio bounce back quickly. Iowa also has a low unemployment rate compared to the rest of the country.

“Ohio and Michigan serve as two examples of what has happened across the nation — when the president took office we were shedding jobs, manufacturing was in decline and the auto industry was on the brink of collapse. But today both states are back on the right track and resurging thanks to the president putting the middle class first,” said Obama campaign spokesman Frank Benenati. “While the president doubled down on the American worker and moved boldly to save the auto industry, Mitt Romney was busy writing op-eds arguing for Detroit to go bankrupt.”