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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama is drawing sharp contrasts between his jobs plan and the ideas put forward by Republicans in Congress, as he continues his bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia today. That may not bring the president's jobs plan any closer to passing. But it does help frame the argument for the 2012 election, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama is urging Congress to pass his jobs bill piece by piece if necessary. And the piece he was highlighting last night in an overheated high school gym in Millers Creek, North Carolina would use federal tax dollars to help local governments keep teachers and other employees on the payroll.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let's put teachers back in the classroom where they belong.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OBAMA: Let's make sure that we're not laying off police officers and firefighters. And let's help veterans get a job after they've defended this country.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama scoffed at a rival Republican jobs plan that would roll back financial and environmental regulations.

OBAMA: The Republican plan says that what's standing between us and full employment are laws that keep companies from polluting our air and our water. Our plan on the other hand says let's put construction workers back to work rebuilding our roads and bridges and schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OBAMA: The audience in the gym chanted four more years, just as a crowd did earlier in the day in Asheville, North Carolina. Mr. Obama insists he's not focused on re-election just yet.

CROWD: Four more years. Four more years.

OBAMA: I appreciate the four more years. But right now I'm thinking about the next 13 months.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: But it's clear the president has at least one eye fixed on November 2012. In between formal jobs speeches, the president spent a lot of time just cruising the blue highways of the state, looking for hands to shake, babies to kiss, and maybe a little good barbecue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Way back up in the country, back in the hills...

HORSLEY: Pork chops and okra was the daily special at Countryside Barbeque. The lunchtime crowd included cops in uniform, teenagers in work clothes, and a group of senior line dancers like Jewell Randolph. She posed for a photo with the president.

JEWELL RANDOLPH: It was a joy to get to meet him and get my picture made with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORSLEY: Not everyone was so enthusiastic. As the president's motorcade wound through the central part of the state, some people waved flags or Obama campaign signs. But others greeted the president with a thumbs down, or in some cases a cruder gesture. North Carolina is still challenging territory for a Democrat, even if Mr. Obama eked out a narrow victory here three years ago. Political scientist Thomas Carsey of the University of North Carolina says if the president can stay competitive in this region, he'll have that many more chances for holding on to the White House.

THOMAS CARSEY: If we're fighting the battle in October and November of next year in places like North Carolina and Virginia, that's going to bode well for the Obama campaign. On the other hand, if North Carolina and Virginia look like they've sort of slipped out of reach for the Obama campaign 12 months from now, that's going to signal that they're really in trouble.

HORSLEY: A big turnout among young voters helped Mr. Obama carry North Carolina in 2008. So college student Marcus Miller was hardly surprised yesterday when the president's bus pulled up outside Appalachian State University and Mr. Obama got out to shake some hands.

MARCUS MILLER: I mean it's a liberal college. So everybody around here I'm pretty sure voted for him in the last election, so...

HORSLEY: Nicola Hesterberg still backs the president, but he admits enthusiasm for Mr. Obama on campus has waned.

NICOLA HESTERBERG: Some people are kind of like, oh, he hasn't lived out his promises. But I mean it's hard for him with everything going on in Congress. And I don't hold that against him. My thing is like, his intentions are good, the direction he's going is good, so even if he's not actually accomplishing it, he's still pushing for what he believes in.

HORSLEY: That's the underlying theme of what might be called the good intentions bus tour, and a pretty good roadmap for Mr. Obama's 2012 campaign. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Greensboro, North Carolina.

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