Obama makes play for Iowa

The 2012 presidential campaign’s focus fell on Iowa on Monday as President Obama and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan waged an intense battle for the state’s six electoral votes.

Obama accused Ryan and congressional Republicans of blocking progress on an agriculture bill the president said would help drought-stricken farmers, while Ryan accused the president of "spending our children into a diminished future.”

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Both men made sure to visit the Iowa State Fair, a huge event in the state that attracts more than a million Iowans every year.

The competing visits to the relatively small state shows how important every electoral vote is for both campaigns in an election likely to be decided in a handful of battleground states.

Obama’s attacks on Ryan, who drew a large crowd on Monday and appears to have energized Republicans, also show the president is determined to tie the GOP standard-bearers to the Republican Congress, which polls suggest is unpopular.

Obama said Ryan, the author of the House Republican budget plan, is a leader of the GOP Congress he described as “standing in the way” of the farm bill.

“Unfortunately right now, too many members of Congress are blocking the farm bill from becoming law,” Obama said. “I am told that Gov. Romney’s new running mate, Paul Ryan, might be around Iowa the next few days — he is one of the leaders of Congress standing in the way. So if you happen to see Congressman Ryan, tell him how important this farm bill is to Iowa and our rural communities.”

The Romney campaign and congressional Republicans fired back, blaming the lack of a farm bill on Obama and noting that Ryan voted for drought relief for farmers earlier this month.

“Paul Ryan hails from an agriculture state and supported disaster relief, and the truth is no one will work harder to defend farmers and ranchers than the Romney-Ryan ticket,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. “After nearly four years of failure, it’s no wonder that Barack Obama returns to the state that launched his presidential campaign with nothing more than broken promises and false attacks.”

Iowa political experts say defining the terms of the farm bill debate could be crucial for both sides in winning over working-class and rural voters in November.

“It’s symbolic of whether Washington is working or not,” said David Yepsen, the former chief political columnist for The Des Moines Register. “It’s important substantively but also important symbolically, and conveys to rural America that people care about them.”

Donna Hoffman, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, said that the president is hoping to depict himself as fighting against a Republican-controlled Congress responsible for a lack of progress — and to tie Romney to that Congress through Ryan.

“One of the things Obama has done repeatedly is setting it up so after the convention he can run against Congress as obstructionist, and this particular inaction on the farm bill will be something that would go along with that,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman also pointed out that the drought could be taking a psychological and economic toll on Iowa, a state that had been spared largely from the effects of the recession.

“Obviously the economy is going to be important in any state that you’re going to go to, and the farm economy had been doing pretty well up until this year,” Hoffman said. “But with farmers seeing huge loses of corn and soybean crops, that can go to general mood, and their perceptions about the economy are important.”

The Senate has approved a new farm bill but House GOP leaders decided against bringing a farm bill to a vote in their chamber. The legislation divides House Republicans, with many conservatives uncomfortable with the bill’s total spending. House Republicans did approve a drought relief measure, but the Senate didn't take up that bill.

House Republicans blamed the Senate for the impasse on Monday, saying that Democrats in control of the upper chamber could have taken up legislation that would have helped struggling farming communities.

“The Democratic-controlled Senate left town for August without taking action on a drought-aid bill that passed the House with bipartisan support, including the support of Chairman Ryan,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “The weak attempt by the White House to manufacture a controversy illustrates the president’s desperation to change the subject to anything other than his failures on jobs and the economy.”

But that could be a tough sell for Republicans, especially as the president looked to position himself as working to help agriculture communities even if Congress is not.

The Obama administration announced Monday it would make up to $170 million in new purchases to assist farmers. The Agriculture Department’s purchases will include up to $100 million of pork products, up to $50 million in chicken and as much as $10 million apiece in lamb and catfish.

The move is a continuation of the "We can't wait" strategy that the president laid out earlier this year while advocating for his job plan, looking to define his administration as acting unilaterally where it can to help the economy. The president previously has used his regulatory and administrative authority to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, encourage employment for veterans and halt deportation hearings on select illegal immigrants.

The Hawkeye State has particular resonance for Obama — during his historic 2008 run, it was his victory at Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses that catapulted him into the upper tier of Democratic presidential contenders.

“That campaign back in 2007 and 2008, it had plenty of ups and downs,” Obama said. “But no matter what, you, the people of Iowa had my back. You had my back when the pundits had written us off, when we were down in the polls you believed in me, and I believed in you. And it was on your front porches and in your backyards where the movement for change in this country began.”

The president defeated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by nearly 10 percentage points there in the 2008 general election, but he returns to find a considerably closer contest. While there has been little recent public polling of the state, Iowa is a true toss-up at this point — four of the last five public polls dating back to late May show Obama and Romney in a statistical tie. The latest, a Rasmussen survey released last Friday, shows Romney ahead 46 percent to 44 percent.

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