WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama returns to North Carolina on Wednesday following visits by his wife and several Cabinet members, Republicans see the trips as a sign of the administration's growing fear that he's going to lose a key battleground state where his political backing is suffering.
Obama's visit to a truck plant in Mount Holly, a suburb of Charlotte, comes five days after first lady Michelle Obama attended campaign fundraisers and a regional college basketball tournament.
A week earlier, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a gay-rights group in Charlotte that it was "hugely important" to re-elect her boss. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden, his wife, Jill, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis were meeting with North Carolina community college students in Thomasville.
"All the king's men are not going to be able to win this state for the president," said Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican whose district includes suburbs of Charlotte. "But it's clear in order to be re-elected he has to win North Carolina."
North Carolina is likely to be among the most fiercely contested state races in the general election next fall. Four years ago, Obama won the state by just 14,000 votes — the first Democrat to carry North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Obama repeatedly has returned to the Tar Heel State. He visited the Fort Bragg Army base in December and started a three-day bus tour in North Carolina in October.
Republicans say the president recognizes the uphill climb he faces trying to repeat history. But Obama has gotten a head start financially in North Carolina, as Republicans have yet to pick a nominee. And political analysts say Republicans likely have more to lose in North Carolina than Obama.
It's common for Cabinet members to travel to swing states to build support for their boss during an election year. President George W. Bush was criticized in 2004 when members of his administration fanned out on official visits to swing states such as Ohio and Florida.
But Republicans say Obama has taken the practice to new levels in North Carolina, where there is a pending exodus of top Democrats retiring this year, including Gov. Beverly Perdue and Reps. Brad Miller and Heath Shuler.
McHenry said the president should be scared. He said voters' views are not only reflected in the decisions by Perdue, Miller and Shuler, but also by the fact that Republicans have taken control of both chambers of the state's General Assembly. The last time Republicans controlled both chambers was in 1898.
"Structurally, their ground game is absolutely decimated from where it was in 2008," McHenry said.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who has predicted that Obama will lose North Carolina, said the visits, along with the Democratic National Convention's presence in Charlotte this summer, show the importance the president's campaign is placing on getting the state's 15 electoral votes out of a total 270 needed to win.
"Let's face it: If it takes North Carolina to show a path to get to 270 (electoral votes), then this campaign is in much more trouble than I ever thought," said Burr.
Obama may be losing allies on the ballot, but he has a huge financial lead over Republicans, who have been immersed in a bloody political primary.
Obama raised more than $1.1 million in North Carolina last year, almost as much as all of his potential Republican challengers combined. And he has nine North Carolina field offices where campaign volunteers are actively registering voters.
Matt Connelly, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said the president's visit is about trying to "rewrite history" of his past three years in office. And Rob Lockwood, spokesman for the state Republican Party, said the president's and his Cabinet members' visits have not resulted in a significant bump in the polls.
According to a February survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm in Raleigh, Obama leads the entire Republican field in the state, though by slim margins.
He's up 47 percent to 46 percent on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; 48 percent to 46 percent on former Sen. Rick Santorum; 50 percent to 45 percent on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and 47 percent to 41 percent on Rep. Ron Paul.
That same survey showed just 48 percent of North Carolina voters approve of him, while 49 percent do not.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Adam Hodge said the president knows he has to "work even harder" in his re-election. "That's why you've already seen the large grassroots effort in North Carolina that will pay dividends across the state," he said.
Obama should be worried about losing North Carolina, but not as much as Republicans should be, according to Andy Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
Obama won election in 2008 with 365 electoral votes. Even if Obama had lost North Carolina, he still would have won the general election.
Last week, Moody's Analytics released its projection of the 2012 election, which showed Obama losing North Carolina but winning the general election.
Still, Taylor said the more likely scenario is that Republicans would lose the general election if the Republican candidate can't first win North Carolina. The state was the closest race Republicans lost four years ago and therefore is likely the GOP's first order of business in regaining critical battleground states.
"It's obviously a lot more critical for Republicans," Taylor said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2012