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Mitt Romney was back in New Hampshire today at the farm where he launched his presidential campaign one year ago.
MITT ROMNEY: In the days ahead, we'll be traveling in what are often called the back roads of America. But I think our tour is going to take us along what I call the backbone of America.
CORNISH: The five-day bus tour will take Romney to small towns in several swing states. The campaign is calling it the Every Town Counts tour. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, even though rural communities are solidly Republican these days, both candidates are trying to win over voters there.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are both, let's be honest, city slickers. And that's a big change for the American presidency, says Dee Davis. He's president of the Center for Rural Strategies.
DEE DAVIS: If it's Reagan on a horse or Clinton, the man from Hope, you know, there has always been this kind of visual narrative or this story that to be president, you had to be able to handle the wilderness, be comfortable outside of the city. It's just part of the lore.
SHAPIRO: You're not likely to see Mitt Romney or Barack Obama in a cowboy hat anytime soon, but both men are trying to appeal to the folks who live in small towns, traditionally Republican strongholds.
SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: It's been an extraordinary priority, and the proof of that is the fact that the president established the Rural Council.
SHAPIRO: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack runs the president's Rural Council. It's a group of Cabinet members that meets to talk about policies aimed specifically at rural America. This week, the council put out a report documenting improvements in the agricultural economy. The administration says it's a first.
VILSACK: In that report is the plan, if you will, for revitalizing the rural economy. We haven't had a plan in the past. We now do.
SHAPIRO: The administration's plan talks about increasing exports, producing biofuels and giving low-interest loans to small businesses in rural America. Exports are already way up over the last few years. Farmers are seeing record profits. Secretary Vilsack says that's a sign of Obama administration's success at helping rural America. Former Senator Jim Talent, who now advises the Romney campaign, disagrees.
JIM TALENT: Exports are up, that's in part because of the weak dollar, and I guess the administration can claim some credit for that. I mean, the dollar is weak because the economy is weak.
SHAPIRO: Over these five days, Romney will visit six swing states that went for President Obama four years ago. In hopes of tipping the whole state into the red column this time, Romney will focus on small towns. Talent says during this bus tour, Romney will lay out his ideas to help rural America: more oil and natural gas drilling, lower taxes and deficit reduction.
TALENT: I mean, folks in rural America understand you can't borrow your way to prosperity, and they know that for themselves, and they know it for the federal government as well.
SHAPIRO: During the primary season, Romney consistently underperformed in small towns. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich often beat him in those areas. So Romney has some work to do, and so does the president. Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies says in 2008, Barack Obama lost rural counties by a smaller margin than John Kerry or Al Gore did.
DAVIS: Obama tightened the race. He lost rural by about 7 percent in the swing states. If he could do that again, this time he would win in a walk. But at this point, rural looks pretty tough.
SHAPIRO: Here's why Davis says that. In 2008, rural districts in Congress were split about evenly between Democrats and Republicans. But in 2010, a Republican wave washed across those districts. Nationally, Republicans won 60 House seats in 2010, and two-thirds of those wins came from rural America. So the small towns that Romney is visiting these next five days are red and getting redder. The Republican candidate just needs to keep that momentum going, while President Obama has the more difficult task of moving the rural trend lines in the opposite direction. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Stratham, New Hampshire.
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