“Listen, this was a deep hole caused by same policies Romney wants to go back to.”
-- Senior White House Adviser David Plouffe on “FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace” when asked why he had abandoned a previously optimistic public position on the trajectory of the economy.
It’s no accident that Mitt Romney’s first barnstorming bus tour as de facto Republican nominee takes him through the Rust Belt. Economically distressed, packed with working-class white voters and politically volatile, these states represent Romney’s best chance for a victory in the fall.
While Romney must certainly win Florida and reclaim the two southern states snatched by President Obama in 2008, Virginia and North Carolina, Romney has the most room to grow in the Rust Belt.
During his five-day swing Mr. Romney’s bus will be driving through eight states worth 105 electoral votes, all won by Obama. While Indiana is all but certain to switch back to red, and Ohio and Iowa stand out as true swing states, most of the rest promise to be tough tests for Romney, particularly Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
But there is more potential in this region for Romney than any other GOP nominee in a generation. The key to winning these states for Republicans in the modern era is to forge a coalition between moderate suburbanites and more conservative rural and small-town voters.
With antipathy toward Obama very strong in rural counties and Romney a candidate seemingly tailor-made for suburban voters, that coalition may be in reach for the GOP in a way not seen since the Reagan era.
The Rust Belt was where the Republicans got wiped out in 2006 and 2008 House elections, but also where the GOP staged its strongest comeback in 2010.
More than half of the 35 seats reclaimed by Republicans in the 2010 election from Democratic victories in the previous two cycles came in the states on Romney’s circuit and 22 of the 63 overall Republican pickups nationwide came from these states along Interstate 70 and to its north.
Obama says his target region is the Mountain West, partly a function of the fact that his campaign manager hails from the region and has staked so much on holding and gaining in that part of the country. Obama’s move to grant temporary amnesty to illegal immigrants who came to America as minors is evidence of how far the president is willing to go to keep Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico in his column and try to make Republicans waste resources in Arizona.
President Obama also needs to play some defense out West, too. Since Obama is almost guaranteed to give back 26 electoral votes from North Carolina and Indiana, Romney could really box in the president if he were to pluck another 15 electoral votes from Nevada and Colorado away from the blue team.
But there are only 20 electoral votes up for grabs in states beyond the Mississippi River Valley.
With Obama staggering a bit after the opening round of the general election fight, the political universe is already shrinking down to a trapezoidal swatch of the nation from Richmond, Va. to Des Moines, Iowa to Milwaukee, Wis., to Manchester, N.H. and back to Richmond. The residents of this quadrangle will see more of the candidates (and political ads) than anyone else.
Florida, with as many electoral votes now as shrinking New York, will remain a strong temptation for Obama, but the real battleground for this election will be the same as it has been for three consecutive cycles. And at the heart of it is the Rust Belt.
The demographics and economic conditions of these states bode well for Romney. After 40 years of economic decline, the Panic of 2008 and resulting recession has proven particularly painful in these states. Areas with shrinking populations and low-growth economies are generally shielded from the worst of a downturn, but also often have the hardest time regaining even nominal growth.
There are success stories – a natural gas boom in some regions to the east and strong, stable job growth in Iowa – but the overall picture is of a region pushed to the brink by a perpetually lousy economy.
Romney’s message is that Obama has made the recession worse and longer than necessary by adding an expensive, complex health-insurance entitlement program and new environmental and labor restrictions onto an already sagging economy.
Obama hopes that he can turn the election into a remake of Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” in which Team Obama makes Romney out to be a blood-sucking corporate raider whose policies reflect the same outlook that Democrats blame for the demise of major manufacturing in most of the region.
Republicans blame increasing labor costs and excessive regulations for the devastation, but Democrats have mostly won the political argument in the region with the more flattering line of reasoning that says Republicans paid off big business backers with incentives for trading expensive American payrolls for the cheap wages of the developing world.
Outsourcing is a very dirty word in this part of the country. Expect to hear it a great deal as the Obama-Romney grudge match rages on.
But on the regulation side of things, Romney has a good chance to persuade Rust Belt voters of his argument. Reagan Democrats might not like to hear that it was the fault of over-generous labor contracts that sent their jobs to Mexico or China, but they do pretty clearly believe that Obama’s regulatory plans are bad for the economy.
Romney certainly understands that all four of the House seats from Ohio that Democrats gained in 2006 and 2008 but lost in 2010 were occupied by members who voted for the president’s plan to impose global warming fees on industry.
Because of the geography of this election and the central arguments of both candidates, the 2012 election may be dominated by two questions: What caused four decades of a downturn for what was once the nation’s manufacturing muscle and how can the trend be reversed?
The Day in Quotes
“I hope the Supreme Court believes -- as I do -- that it's not constitutional. But regardless of their decision, if I'm president, we're going to stop Obamacare in its tracks and return to the Tenth Amendment that allows states to care for these issues on the way they think best.”
-- Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on “Face the Nation.”
“Well, we're not going to send checks to Europe. We're not going to bail out the European banks.”
-- Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on “Face the Nation.”
“That’s pretty much a flat ‘no.’”
-- Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., on “State of the Union” when asked whether he would accept a position in Mitt Romney’s administration if Romney prevails in November.
"Some people are trying to spoil the atmosphere of these talks.”
-- Yuri Ushakov, foreign policy adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, talking to reporters ahead of an economic summit in Mexico of the leaders of the nations with the world’s 20 largest about comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in the Obama administration accusing the Kremlin of propping up the Assad regime in Syria.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.