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Analysis: Weak economy shadows Obama in bright areas

President Barack Obama speaks to supporters during a departure ceremony at the airport in Accra
President Barack Obama speaks to supporters during a departure ceremony at the airport in Accra

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bright spot for President Barack Obama in the bleak economic picture should be that many of the "swing" states crucial to his 2012 re-election bid are weathering the recession relatively well.

But unfortunately for Obama, voters in those states are just not seeing the light.

Voters in Virginia, Pennsylvania and some other battleground states where the election will likely be decided are not optimistic about the economy, even though their rates of unemployment -- the most politically sensitive economic statistic -- are below the 9.1 percent national rate.

Americans tend to blame Washington for nationwide economic problems, so Obama will face a tough fight to turn the economic data to his advantage in states where he and his eventual Republican rival will be focusing most of their attention.

"People tend to vote based on their perceptions of the state of the economy, and the national news dialogue is about the struggling economy and high unemployment, so even in the swing states that are doing better that's reality for most voters," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at Virginia's George Mason University.

"Americans ... tend to look to presidents as managers of the national economy and if Virginia's doing better, I think (Republican Governor) Bob McDonnell gets the credit in the minds of the voters," he said.

Among states seen as neither firmly Democratic nor Republican ahead of the November 2012 vote, Virginia has a 6.0 percent unemployment rate and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are both at 7.4 percent.

Obama, a Democrat, won all three -- as he did most of the swing states -- in 2008 when he soared to the White House in a campaign fueled by voter unhappiness over the weak economy under his Republican predecessor George W. Bush.

But since that election, Republicans have won governors' races in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and the states' congressional delegations have turned more Republican. Polls also show voters there are worried about the economy, and view the Democratic president less favorably.

"It's all comparative and it's all relative," said Matt McDonald, a partner at the Republican-aligned Hamilton Place Strategies consultancy in Washington.

"The number that people are exposed to nationally is bad," he said.

BLEAK ECONOMIC INDICATORS

Obama is still ahead in most polls against possible Republican challengers, led by front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and businessman who is making jobs and the economy the centerpiece of his campaign.

Romney scheduled a news conference on the economy on Thursday at the entrance to a closed metalworking plant in Allentown, Pennsylvania, that Obama visited in 2009 to say it would benefit from his $821 billion economic stimulus plan.

Romney's campaign also issued an Internet ad about the plant closing, including the graphic "Over 100,000 Pennsylvania jobs lost since President Obama took office." Obama was making a campaign fundraising visit to the state on Thursday.

Weak unemployment is only one worrisome economic indicator. U.S. consumer spending failed to rise in May, breaking 10 straight months of gains. And the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, suggesting little improvement in the labor market.

Although the election is 17 months away, Obama will face an uphill battle convincing voters to feel better about the country's prospects if things do not improve.

"At this point, it's awfully hard to see an Obama commercial that says 'It's morning again in America,'" said Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and a founder of Pollster.com.

Pennsylvania -- which has 20 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency -- is considered particularly crucial for Obama's 2012 hopes.

After reeling in the 1980s and 1990s from the decline of steelmaking and other key industries, the state has lower unemployment than the national average for the first time in modern history, noted Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Pennsylvania's Franklin & Marshall College.

Obama won in Pennsylvania by an unusually large 10 percentage point margin in 2008, but polls show his job approval rating there -- about 45 percent -- is about the same as it is nationally.

"They still say in my state as well as almost every other state that the country is moving in the wrong direction," Madonna said.

While better economies are not helping Obama much in relatively robust swing states, economic weakness could hit hard in those that are reeling from the downturn, including four states now considered battlegrounds.

Joblessness is at 9.7 percent in North Carolina, where Obama eked out a win with a 0.3 percent margin in 2008. In Michigan, it is 10.3 percent, although the state has benefited from Obama's bailout of the auto industry.

Unemployment in Nevada, which Obama won by 10 percentage points in 2008, is the country's worst, at 12.1 percent.

And in Florida, the biggest swing state with 29 electoral votes, and where Obama edged his Republican rival John McCain by just 3 percentage points in 2008, unemployment is at 10.6 percent.

"The last four states are both battlegrounds and economically worse off than the nation, making the political battle over the economy very important there," Franklin said.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Simao)

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