The Race Is On: Obama Heads To Battleground States

President Obama formally kicks off his campaign Saturday with a pair of rallies: one in Richmond, Va., and one in Columbus, Ohio. NPR's Scott Horsley joins host Scott Simon to talk about the day.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Obama tried to best the face on yesterday's jobs report. He told students at a Virginia high school that private employers have added more than four million jobs over the last two years, but he acknowledge recovery is not happening fast enough.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's still a lot of folks out of work, which means that we've got to do more. If we're gonna recover all the jobs that were lost during the recession, and if we're going to build a secure economy that strengthens the middle class, then we're gonna have to do more.

SIMON: Mr. Obama holds his first official reelection campaign rallies today in Ohio and Virginia. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and joins us now. Scott, thank for being with us.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: My pleasure.

SIMON: And I imagine President Obama would have liked to warm up the crowd with a couple of jokes and a stronger jobs report.

HORSLEY: I'm sure he would have. In simple terms, the more jobs we add, the more likely it is he gets to keep his job. But for better or worse, this president has a lot of experience in trying to spin less than stellar jobs numbers each month, and he can talk about how the glass is half full. He'll point out that even 115,000 jobs is a whole lot better than losing 700,000 which is where we were three years ago.

SIMON: And he's going to be on Ohio and Virginia as we noted today. Isn't the economy doing somewhat better in those states?

HORSLEY: It is, and it's important to keep in mind, you know, the presidential election is really 50 different state elections, and in Ohio the unemployment rate now is well below the national average. It's 7.5 percent down from a peak of more than 10.5 percent. Ohio has seen some good manufacturing gains, some gains in the recovering auto industry. And then, Virginia the economy really chugged right through the recession. Unemployment there is now just 5.6 percent, and one reason is that Virginia's a big beneficiary of a lot of federal spending, both in the suburbs around Washington, D.C., and the big military presence around Norfolk.

SIMON: Can we assume that's why the president is having these kick-off rallies in those two states?

HORSLEY: Well, I don't think he chose them just because they have better-than-average economies, but they're certainly politically important states. You know, there are about a dozen states around the country that are going to be the most hotly contested in November, and none hotter, certainly, than Ohio and Virginia. That's no surprise for Ohio. I mean, that's a political battleground every four years, but for Virginia, this is still something kind of new.

President Obama sort of caught the Republicans napping there four years ago. He was the first Democrat to carry that state since Lyndon Johnson. Since then though, Republicans in Virginia have retaken the governor's office, they've made gains in the Virginia legislature. So 2012 is kind of the rubber match and with these rallies today, you can see that Virginia's really in the top tier of battleground states.

SIMON: Scott, we call this the president's first official campaign rally, but in these times, what's the difference between a rally we'll see today and some of the appearances the president has been making for months, if not years?

HORSLEY: Right. Well one difference I guess is the soundtrack. We will not be hearing John Phillips Souza today, we'll be hearing more Springsteen and Aretha Franklin and Al Green. But I suspect these rallies will sound an awful lot like the speeches the president has been making at dozens of fundraisers in recent months. He'll be talking about his accomplishments in health care and financial reform, and the economy, and then he'll acknowledge that for a lot of people change hasn't come fast enough.

Usually about that point someone in the crowd shouts out, we still love you, and the crowd cheers, you know. These are the faithful. If you're at an Obama rally in May of 2012, you probably already believe in this president. These aren't the folks he needs to win over, but these are the folks he hopes will help him to win others over between now and November.

SIMON: NPR's Scott Horsley, on the kickoff to President Obama's reelection campaign. Thanks so much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Scott.

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