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WASHINGTON  — Inserting his voice into a big night for Republicans, President Barack Obama was appealing to Iowa Democrats during the first balloting in the GOP presidential campaign, seeking to counter months of withering criticism in the state that launched his presidential ambitions four years ago.

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Obama was hosting a live video teleconference for Democrats attending precinct caucuses across Iowa, outlining his progress during the first term and asking for their help in the upcoming campaign. Beyond the lead-off caucuses, Iowa is expected to be hotly contested in the fall election.

The president’s re-election campaign emailed supporters a video of Obama’s Iowa victory speech in January 2008, arguing he has kept the promises he made that night: making health care more affordable, cutting taxes for the middle class, ending the war in Iraq and reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

“A new chapter in the story of 2012 starts with what happens in Iowa tonight,” Mitch Stewart, a top Obama campaign aide, said in a separate email to supporters. “Most of us will watch what happens on TV – but as you do, remember that the end of this story is up to you and what you decide to do in the days and weeks ahead.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama would thank supporters for their help and discuss his efforts to keep the promises he made in Iowa four years ago. But Carney said the president “has a lot of work to do before he engages aggressively in the general election. That will come in due time.”

Obama was wasting little time getting back in front of voters following a Hawaiian vacation spent largely out of the spotlight. Campaign officials said Obama was expected to take questions from voters during the Iowa session, which was airing only for those who attended the caucus meetings. On Wednesday, Obama will travel to Cleveland for an event focused on the economy.

Obama was seeking to counter months of pounding by Republicans in Iowa and by the Republican National Committee, which has assailed Obama’s economic record and tagged him as a president who has failed to live up to lofty expectations.

“Three years later, the president’s promises of hope and change have been replaced with a record of failed leadership and policies that have made the economy worse,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.

Iowa looks to be among about a dozen states that could shift either way in the 2012 campaign. Trying to build on his 2008 win there, Obama’s campaign has opened eight offices in the state and had held more than 1,200 training sessions, phone banks and other events and made more than 350,000 phone calls to supporters since April.

“When the rest of the Republican field packs up their office and leaves town, we have been here, we will continue to be here and we will continue to take and treat Iowa seriously,” said Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman.

Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, tried to raise expectations in Iowa for Republican Mitt Romney, saying anything but a top finish in the state would bode poorly for his campaign.

Democrats have tried to undermine Romney’s business background, accusing him of outsourcing jobs and laying off workers while he led Bain Capital, a private equity firm, while questioning his principles on issues such as health care, abortion and gun control.

“Crawling over the finish line in Iowa after 5 years of effort is going to come at a price,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Obama returned to Washington facing further debate on extending payroll tax cuts, the same issue that consumed Washington during the final days of December.

Congress broke through a stalemate just days before Christmas, agreeing to extend the cuts for two months. Lawmakers will get back to work later this month to negotiate a full-year extension of the cuts, which Obama supports.

White House officials say the tax cut extension is the last “must-do” legislative item on Obama’s agenda this year. His strategy for his fourth year in office will focus largely on taking executive actions that do not need approval from lawmakers as he seeks to break away from a deeply unpopular Congress.

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