By Jeff Mason
CHICAGO (Reuters) - While Republican presidential candidates target early-voting states, President Barack Obama's team is laying the groundwork for a 50-state campaign strategy it hopes will secure another White House win in 2012.
From the traditional "swing" states of Florida and Ohio to a typically Republican-leaning state like Arizona, Democrat Obama's political supporters are opening offices, engaging voters and rallying volunteers to create a nationwide network, even in areas unfriendly to their candidate's cause.
The strategy is similar to Obama's successful 2008 campaign, but it is still unorthodox.
To win the White House, traditional presidential campaigns focus their attention on a handful of states that typically swing between Republican and Democratic candidates, working to earn at least 270 of the states' 538 "electoral votes" that determine the ultimate winner.
"People in Washington like to second guess us on this and say, 'you ought to go back to (focusing on) the 15 or 20 states and why do you have a Idaho state director and why do you have a Utah state director?'" said Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, referring to Republican western strongholds.
"The fact is, we have supporters there who want to get involved in the campaign, and they ought to be able to get involved," he said in an interview in his Chicago office.
The campaign needs nationwide involvement.
As high unemployment hurts Obama's chances in Ohio and other states that helped propel him to victory in 2008, having avenues of support in non-traditional Democratic patches could be the only way to victory.
"His campaign has to do something to fundamentally change the electoral landscape, and broadening the map is probably the only option out of a bunch of bad ones," said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former adviser to one-time presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty.
Fundraising helps. The Obama campaign has outraised all the president's potential Republican opponents and is expected to top its 2008 total of $750,000 in campaign cash, giving it flexibility to spend even in states that are a reach.
And though he may defend areas that should be in his corner, establishing operations all over the country will force Republicans to spend money in states they should own, too.
"It's almost certain that Obama and the Democrats will outspend the Republican candidate. We'll have enough to be competitive in the swing states," Conant said.
STATE BY STATE
Obama leads potential rivals Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, in most polls, but the margins are tight and the election is still more than a year away. A lot can change.
Which means another part of Obama's campaign strategy now is to build momentum.
Advisers know that supporters are disappointed and enthusiasm is low compared to what they saw in 2008, when Obama was still an Illinois senator promising hope and change.
But addressing that -- and other challenges -- is happening on a state by state basis.
"We won't have one cookie cutter approach to every single state because what the voters are feeling in Florida is very different than what they're feeling in Colorado," said Jen O'Malley Dillon, a deputy campaign manager on Messina's team.
"We're very conscious of making sure we understand what's happening in each state and the thing we know more than anything else is that we won't have one national program."
Conant, the Republican strategist, said Obama would have to spend money in states that "haven't gone Republican in decades" such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, where Pawlenty used to be governor.
"If they're boasting a 50-state strategy that involves spending money to hold traditionally Democratic states, that's a very bad omen for Obama's re-election chances," he said.
The Obama campaign is optimistic. Messina mentioned Georgia and Arizona, two states that sided with Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, as ones the campaign would work to flip in 2012.
SWING STATES STILL IN FOCUS
Fifty-state strategy or not, the Obama campaign and the White House have those swing states sharply in focus.
Since unveiling a new plan to boost jobs, Obama has traveled to a handful of them, including Ohio and Colorado.
"This jobs tour is going to the states it's going to for a reason...They're going to very specific states that are battlegrounds for 2012, and I think that's smart," Democratic strategist Liz Chadderdon said.
And the message the president has delivered has helped to energize his base with fiery rhetoric critical of Republicans -- red meat for his supporters in any state.
"His jobs speech felt very much like the old Obama, the guy we all fell in love with in 2008, and I've heard that from a lot of other Democrats," Chadderdon said.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)