By Jeff Mason
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Barack Obama's approval ratings are down, Republican challengers are beating him in polls and the U.S. economy is in a slump, yet the Democratic president's re-election campaign headquarters is buzzing.
There are no signs with "Hope" or "Change" -- Obama's popular slogans in 2008 -- hanging prominently at the office in downtown Chicago. Simple "2012" posters with the president's website cover the walls instead.
But youthful enthusiasm abounds at the 50,000-square-foot (4,645-sq-m) nerve center, where some 200 staff members and volunteers are racing ahead of the Republican candidates in raising cash and setting up a national campaign network.
The space is nearly twice as big as Obama's 2008 campaign headquarters, which came in around 31,000 square feet, and the team of strategists, web designers, money counters and message makers is expanding.
Young people just out of college play ping pong, maps and chalkboard paint cover the walls, and a life-size cardboard cutout of the president peers over a sea of desks.
The atmosphere, in the words of one staffer, is like that of a fledgling Internet company, and the dress code is casual: 20- and 30-somethings, many of whom worked in the suit-and-tie atmosphere of Washington, now walk around in jeans, sneakers and untucked shirts, a few of them showing off tattoos.
"I did a lot of work for start-ups before. There's a certain energy to start-ups," said Harper Reed, 33, the campaign's chief technology officer, clad in faded jeans, big black glasses, huge earrings, and a T-shirt with "NOIZE" written on the front.
"These are mostly start-up people. And here they get to build a product that will empower the field organization to just do what they do best," he said.
Obama, the one-time transformative candidate, has a long way to go to regain the momentum that swept him into power in 2008. Some polls show Mitt Romney could beat him in 2012 if the former Massachusetts governor wins the Republican nomination.
Obama is clearly ahead, though, in campaign organizing.
He and the Democratic National Committee raised more than $70 million from July to September, beating all the Republican hopefuls put together.
Obama's campaign team, boosted by former White House staffers, also dwarfs those of his possible Republican rivals.
BATTLE FOR MOMENTUM
The question, however, is which side will have more momentum, as Obama tries to convince young voters and other important demographic groups to stick with him despite the moribund economy he has presided over for nearly three years.
"Core constituencies from President Obama's 2008 coalition continue to move away from him and overall Democrat voter enthusiasm is at new lows," said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
"In fact, with youth being hit harder by the economy than the rest of the country, President Obama has a lot of work to do to excite young voters and expect them to campaign for him as they did in 2008."
Obama's campaign is trying to address that by building up offices and volunteers in all 50 U.S. states, and some of the headquarters crew will depart for those local sites next year.
But for now they are bolstering the operation in Chicago, Obama's home town.
Keeping a distance from Washington is deliberate. Campaign workers stay outside of the "bubble" of the capital and see how their efforts and messaging connect with voters in a less political atmosphere.
"You get a real sense of what's broken through and what hasn't broken through. It's not easy to tell that in D.C.," said Ben LaBolt, the campaign spokesman.
The headquarters has an open seating plan. Workers take their places at long tables in a space that looks something like an enormous classroom. Actual offices with doors that close are largely eschewed.
The staff is made up of a mixture of newcomers and veterans who worked on the previous campaign or within the Obama administration.
"I oversee all the nerds," said Michael Slaby, the campaign's chief integration and innovation officer.
The team is divided into regional "pods" based on geographical areas the campaign is targeting. A sign inked in purple, orange and blue over the western pod, which covers important swing states such as Colorado and Nevada, proclaims "How the West is won."
An air hockey station, foosball table, and mini golf putting green decorate different areas of the office. The ping pong table alone draws lines of players in the afternoons.
"The single most important thing to us ... is that people talk to each other, work together, break down any silos," said Jim Messina, 41, the campaign manager.
Messina has one of the rare offices with a door that closes.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)