By KEN THOMAS and JULIE PACE
JAMESTOWN, N.C. (AP) - Three years after his surprising wins in Southern states, President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is doubling down in the region, hoping to turn changing demographics into electoral wins and offset potential losses in traditional swing states next year.
Obama's Southern strategy is at the heart of his three-day bus trip this week through North Carolina and Virginia. In 2008 he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in those Republican strongholds in a generation.
With 28 electoral votes between them, wins in North Carolina and Virginia could help Obama make up for defeats in Rust Belt states like Ohio and Indiana, which he won in 2008 but could be hard-pressed to carry next year.
The president's bus tour started Monday in Asheville, N.C., whose mountains have attracted retirees from the Northeast, and took Obama through rural swaths of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He spent the night in Greensboro, where four black students launched a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter to protest segregation in 1960, a year before Obama was born.
On Tuesday, Obama was making stops in rural Emporia, Va., and Hampton, Va., where the region's large number of black voters helped him carry the state three years ago. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were discussing veterans' issues on Wednesday at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va.
Both states have seen economic and demographic changes that could alter the politics. North Carolina's economy has shifted from textiles and tobacco to banking and research, while Virginia's population has boomed in the state's northern suburbs outside Washington, D.C., with the expansion of large defense contractors and firms tied to the federal government.
Along his bus tour, Obama was making unscheduled stops at restaurants and general stores, giving him a chance to engage in the type of personal politics that is so prevalent in presidential campaigns but hard to come by in the White House.
Obama was the first Democrat to carry Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and the first to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Yet picking up states in the South again could be difficult. Obama's poll numbers in North Carolina and Virginia are down, in line with national trends. A recent Elon University poll put the president's approval rating in North Carolina at 42 percent, and a Quinnipiac University poll had it at 45 percent in Virginia.
That has Obama's campaign putting both states near the top of its priority list and opening three offices in North Carolina and one in Virginia, with more to come. The Democratic Party will hold its convention in Charlotte, N.C., next summer, and North Carolina and Virginia are already showing up frequently on Obama's travel itinerary, a trend that is expected to continue through the election.
"My intention is to win North Carolina again like we did last time," Obama said in an interview Monday with Charlotte TV station WCNC. "It will be close because obviously folks are frustrated with the challenges that we still face in the economy."
Obama's Southern strategy extends beyond the two states.
His campaign plans to compete heavily in Florida, the ultra-swing state that decided the 2000 election, and campaign officials consider Georgia a place where they could challenge Republicans on their turf. Obama lost Georgia by 5 percentage points in 2008, but Democrats see potential in the influx of black and Hispanic voters in suburban areas outside Atlanta.
"It won't be easy," said Mike Berlon, chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party. "But we are working to register new voters and we think the demographics are on our side."
Southern Democrats suffered big losses in last year's midterm elections. Twenty Democrats in Congress from across the region lost their seats and Republicans seized control of chambers in North Carolina, Louisiana and Virginia. Republicans picked up 17 state House seats, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Republicans view the strategy as a sign of larger problems for Obama's team in the Upper Midwest and Rust Belt, which Obama swept in 2008, and in Western states won by Obama, like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
"He's in a world of hurt in the Great Lakes. There's no doubt about it. They're right to look for places that might offset that. But they don't have a happy hunting ground," said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman. "They need to shore up the Southwest and Southeast - Virginia and North Carolina - in hopes of offsetting losses they're going to sustain in the Great Lakes."
Republicans have called the bus tour nothing more than an early jump on the 2012 campaign. "Going down there on the taxpayer's dime, calling it not a campaign event and then attacking Republicans is probably the worst overreach I've observed in the years that I've been in the Congress," Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama's 2008 Republican opponent, told reporters Tuesday.
Democratic presidential candidates have had trouble in the South since Carter swept his home region to win the White House in 1976. Bill Clinton won his home state of Arkansas, along with Louisiana and Tennessee during his two presidential campaigns - he also carried Georgia in 1992 and Florida in 1996 - but Al Gore and John Kerry both came up empty in the South.
In 2008, Obama blitzed North Carolina with millions of dollars of television ads, a large staff and an emphasis on early voting. He boosted turnout among black voters and took advantage of demographic shifts in the state, especially in a stretch from Charlotte to Raleigh along Interstate 85 where many retirees from northern states have moved.
In Virginia, Obama was helped by a strong turnout among young people, broad support from Hispanics and black voters and increases over Kerry's performance in every region of the state's western slice. The state is quickly becoming one of the nation's most competitive states in politics, with statewide campaigns typically won and lost in fast-growing areas outside the suburbs of Northern Virginia; in the region surrounding Richmond, the state's capital; and in the Virginia Beach area, which includes large pockets of black voters.
Dave Beattie, a Florida-based Democratic pollster who has worked on campaigns throughout the South, said Obama will need to maximize turnout among black and Hispanic voters, excite the Democratic base but also "show the voters in the middle that don't like politics that he's really working for them."
Obama will lavish more attention to the weeks ahead. Next month, he is paying homage to something many Tar Heels hold dear - the University of North Carolina men's basketball team. The president plans to attend the Carrier Classic on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego, where North Carolina will face Michigan State.
--- Thomas reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Shannon McCaffrey in Atlanta and Donna Cassata in Washington and Jennifer Agiesta, deputy polling director for The Associated Press, contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)