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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sets off Monday on a bus tour that aims to produce give-and-take with Americans in the U.S. heartland after a summer-long political fight in Washington over the nation’s debt crisis.

The White House says the three-state, five stop tour is official business, not a campaign swing, but it’s also Obama’s first bus tour since he criss-crossed the country seeking the presidency. And with the 2012 campaign already under way, the excursion will surely have a campaign feel, especially as Obama sweeps into the beautiful rolling farmland in northeastern Iowa just two days after voters in the state held the first test vote of the Republican presidential nominating season.

With poll numbers falling for both Obama and Congress after a nasty political fight over raising the country’s borrowing limit and spending cuts, Americans are in a bad humor. They are still feeling the deep pinch of a stunted recovery from the worst economic downturn since the 1930’s Great Depression.

The country also suffered a blow to national pride as a major debt rating agency lowered its assessment of American credit worthiness for the first time in history. Unemployment stands above 9 percent.

The president will get a chance to absorb the public’s anger and do his best to give optimistic answers as he motors between town hall stops.

Obama was unlikely to engage any of his potential Republican rivals by name, aides said, but he’s already indicated plans to draw sharp contrasts between his ideas on the economy and the Republican approach, which the president recently dismissed to little more than slashing spending on vital programs like education and Medicare, the program that provides health care for the poor.

At the same time, aides say that coming off a debt deal that included deep cuts without raising any taxes, the president is ready for complaints from disaffected Democrats tired of his compromises with Republicans, and from a public disgusted with a dysfunctional Washington.

The bus tour itinerary takes Obama through three states he won in 2008 but where he now needs to shore up his standing. In Iowa, Obama returns to a state that handed him a key victory over Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 but where Republicans have now been blanketing the state in preparation for its first-in-the-nation caucuses, attacking the president at every turn.

Obama made a similar outing last year, traveling the Midwest in a two-day, three-state tour in April 2010 that took him to Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. There was no bus, but the president’s motorcade made hours-long drives through rural areas, passing school children waving American flags and seniors sitting on lawn chairs.

The trip gave the president a chance to engage in some of the grass roots politicking he perfected in 2008 during weeks spent campaigning in the small towns that would help carry him to victory in places like Iowa. Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on his way back to Washington, Obama said the trip reminded him of his early days in politics.

“It was a reminder that sometimes there’s a mismatch between the way politics are portrayed in Washington and how people are feeling,” the president said at the time. “I think it’s a less toxic atmosphere.”

But the political fumes of the weekend Republican straw poll and subsequent Sunday campaigning will still hang heavy over Iowa.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry competed for the hearts and minds of conservative Iowa voters Sunday night, focusing on jobs at the same event in what might be a preview of the months ahead in the Republican race to find a challenger to President Barack Obama.

Perry and Bachmann were vying for attention as their campaign schedules put them at the same county Republican Party event in Waterloo, Iowa.

Perry announced his candidacy Saturday in South Carolina, just hours before Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll, a key early test of candidates’ level of support in the Midwestern state whose February caucuses kick off the presidential nomination season.

Both candidates have enjoyed strong support from evangelical Christians and supporters of the small government, low tax tea party movement, and are now making big plays for those two important constituencies in Iowa. They are battling to emerge as the top alternative from the party’s most conservative wing to the perceived front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.


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