US President Barack Obama greets on-stage participants at Greenville County High School in Emporia, Virginia, Tuesday, (Photo: Reuters).
President Barack Obama prepared to cast a wider net on Wednesday to shore up support in electoral battlegrounds as he wraps up a tour of Southern states that could be critical to his 2012 re-election chances.
Obama was on the last leg of a three-day road trip across North Carolina and Virginia that the White House billed as part of a nationwide pitch for his jobs plan but that also has carried the trappings of a candidate on the campaign trail.
The first stages of Obama's bus tour were devoted heavily to trying to re-energize his base of liberals, youths and black voters needed to win a second term as his poll numbers languish amid a stagnant economy and high unemployment.
But before heading home to Washington, Obama was seeking to court other constituencies that could help him stave off the Republican challenge in politically pivotal Virginia.
With popular first lady Michelle Obama at his side, the president planned to reach out to Virginia's large military population with a public-private partnership to retrain and hire thousands of veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And his final stop, at a firehouse in a Richmond suburb to plug his proposal for aid to states to prevent firefighter layoffs, was meant to resonate with moderate independent voters he is trying to win back.
Obama was using his tour not only to test out a more populist message for his re-election campaign, but also to gauge whether the two traditionally conservative states he won in the 2008 election can stay in his column in 2012.
All signs point to a daunting task for Obama, whose approval ratings nationwide have fallen to the 40 percent range, the lows of his presidency.
The bus tour was taking place more than a year before the election, a time when incumbent presidents generally are fundraising instead of campaigning at full tilt.
"Obama is under immense pressure to solidify his support," said Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University.
Obama, whose re-election may hinge on his ability to spur hiring, is pressing Republicans back in Washington to pass his $447 billion jobs package in "bite-size pieces" after they shot it down as a whole in Congress last week.
The Senate may vote as early as this week on the first part of the package, a $35 billion measure to create or save 400,000 jobs for teachers, police officers and firefighters, funded by a surtax on people earning a million dollars or more.
Obama's strategy is to force Republicans to accept his proposals or be painted as obstructing economic recovery.
Republicans, who see Obama's plan as laden with wasteful spending and job-killing tax increases on wealthier Americans, say the Democratic president is playing electoral games.
The jockeying has extended the deadlock that brought the United States to the brink of default in August.
Obama has another jobs tour next week. He flies to California, where he remains popular, but Western "swing" states where his support is less certain are also likely to be on the itinerary.
As Obama's black armored bus rolled through the South this week, there was little denying the shift into campaign mode in what experts see as must-win states for him next year.
Sandwiched between partisan speeches, Obama dropped in at diners, stopped for roadside photo opportunities and visited schools where he enthused over students' robotics projects.
But he also got a taste of the mixed views of his record. His motorcade was often greeted by cheering throngs. But there were also signs with messages like "No-bama 2013" and "Liar."
"I was for him at first. Right now, I'm not so sure. I'm waiting to see what he does with the economy," Jerry Talley, 63, said outside a restaurant in Reidsville, North Carolina.
North Carolina and Virginia had been Republican strongholds until Obama carried both states in 2008, but polls now show him in danger of losing them.
An Elon University poll has put Obama's approval rating at 42 percent in North Carolina, where Democrats will hold their presidential convention in the summer. A Quinnipiac University poll showed Obama's approval ratings at 45 percent in Virginia and put Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in a dead-heat with him in theoretical matchups.
Courting Virginia's military community could give Obama a boost. Leading firms like ConAgra Foods and Tyson Foods pledge to hire 25,000 veterans and their spouses by the end of 2013, responding to Obama's call to tackle joblessness among those returning from war, the White House said.