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First Caucus State a Primary Focus for Obama's General Election Campaign

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - President Obama Tuesday carried his populist message of Bush-era tax rate extensions exclusively for the middle class to the politically charged state of Iowa, a place that's familiar with making and breaking primary candidates but this year is crucial to the president's reelection bid.

"Here in Iowa it seems like it's always campaign season," the president said to supporters gathered in a crowded gym at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. "You guys can't get away from it. I know that sometimes it can be tempting to lose interest and lose heart..."

Iowans are accustomed to seeing candidates crisscross the state in the deep December snow, but this year they have seen the president visit their state in as winter turns to the dog-days of summer. He has been to the Hawkeye state four times this year, heralding policies such as keeping lower interest rates on student loans, his energy plan and Tuesday's topic, continuing the Bush-era tax rates for those making less than $250,000 while reverting to Clinton-era rates for those making more.

"Doesn't it make sense for us to agree to keep taxes lower for 98 percent of Americans who are working hard and can't afford a tax hike right now? I mean think about it, I want to keep taxes steady for 98 percent of Americans, Republicans say they want to do the same thing," the president said. "Agree where you can agree."

With the arguments he made here, the president aims to paint himself as a champion of the middle class in order to win over voters the campaign see as vital in state that is key to his re-election. They also complement a strategy of labeling the Republican presumptive Mitt Romney as a big-business outsourcer who is out of touch with small-town America.

"We don't need more top down economics," Obama said. "What we need is someone who is going to fight every single day to grow the middle class because that's how the economy grows."

Republicans pushed back on that line of attack with their own assertion that the president's policies have sent more jobs overseas than Romney ever has.

"The Outsourcer-In-Chief is going around the country touting his jobs record, but the only positive record he has is creating jobs in faraway places..." Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. "President Obama has promised over and over that he would focus on creating jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced but his record speaks otherwise."

As the president campaigns in Iowa, Romney and the RNC are looking to follow up on Monday's news that they bested the president and the DNC in fundraising for the month of June by more than $30 million.

Despite the June money gap, the president has been criticized for spending too much time raising cash with coastal elites. He enters the state coming off two high-dollar fundraisers at Washington's Mandarin Oriental Hotel Monday.

It typically costs a donor around $40,000 to attend that type of campaign event, a cost that approaches the $49,298 median annual income of someone from Cedar Rapids.

That overnight pivot from fundraising to grassroots outreach is emblematic of a campaign that raises its money in large, coastal cities and spends it in a handful of swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa.

The Romney camp says raising taxes on those above the $250,000 income line will hurt job creation at a time the nation's economy needs it most, a claim the White House disputes in its push.

The president may have a friendly audience in the Hawkeye State. Iowa's unemployment rate is 5.1 percent, more than three points lower than the national average.

And with less than four months until election day, the president is fighting to drive his economic message to an Iowa electorate which is proving to be nearly as critical to him in the general election as it was to the Republican presidential hopefuls who flocked here last year. He took a shot at Republicans Tuesday telling supporters in Cedar Rapids that a lack of ideas on their side will translate into a negative campaign.

"All they can say is unemployment is still too high, folks are still struggling and it's Obama's fault. That's their message. That's it. They don't have another one," Mr. Obama said. "Now, that may be a plan to win an election, but it is not a plan to create jobs....They don't have that plan. I've got that plan."

Obama campaign staffers point back to the president's Iowa Caucus win four years ago when confronted with the state's urgency in November.

"[T]his is a state where we want to compete, we want to win," said campaign spokesperson Jen Psaki on the Air Force One flight to Cedar Rapids. "The president cares deeply about the people here and he's looking forward to seeing some familiar faces."

Iowa Republicans claim voters here are energized to vote against the president and with the state being key to at least two potential paths campaign advisers have laid out for victory, It's likely the president will see some of those faces again between now and November.