Barack Obama became an official candidate Thursday for the New Hampshire presidential primary, a formality for a man unlikely to face a serious Democratic challenger in the rapidly approaching primary election.
While Vice President Joe Biden submitted the required paperwork to the secretary of state on the president's behalf, his trip served other purposes as well. He promoted the president's latest economic plan in an early afternoon speech at Plymouth State University and offered a reminder in a state buzzing with GOP contenders that Obama cannot be taken lightly in the 2012 presidential contest.
While the Republican candidates have been campaigning here for months, Obama has barely begun to shift his massive campaign apparatus into gear. And he has work to do in a fiercely independent state that may lean blue but has increasingly soured on the Democratic president.
Biden did not acknowledge any political weakness when asked about poor polling numbers and instead turned the focus to the crowded GOP field.
"There's no fundamental difference between and among any of the Republican candidates," he said. "So it's already pretty clear whoever the candidate is what the battle lines will be in terms of how we see the future of America. And we're prepared to take that case, and anxious to take that case and contrasting that case, to the people of the United States and the people of New Hampshire."
Obama's popularity has reached an all-time low in the small battleground state, according to a University of New Hampshire poll released this week. Just 41 percent of state voters said they approve of his job performance, compared to 53 percent who disapprove.
"If you had to bet right now, you'd say he'd probably lose," University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith said of Obama's general election outlook in the state.
In some ways, Obama has never been a local favorite. He finished a disappointing second place to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. And Smith points out that Obama's numbers have plummeted among independents and members of his own party.
There was little visible sign of that disappointment Thursday, however. Biden's motorcade passed just one protester on the drive to Plymouth State University. A man held a cardboard sign that read, "Obama isn't working."
Cheering supporters greeted Biden at the State House, where he submitted Obama's declaration of candidacy. Earlier in the day, the vice president visited the Tilton Diner, where he posed for pictures with unsuspecting patrons and chatted with New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch and local business owner Alex Ray, both Democrats.
"I know it's a harder job than he thought it was," Ray said, shrugging off Obama's challenges. "But to this day I support Obama. He hasn't kicked his campaign into gear yet."
Indeed, Republican presidential candidates have flooded the state in recent months in anticipation of the Granite State's presidential primary, the first such contest in the nation and now expected for early January. Secretary of State Bill Gardner confirmed that Obama is the only Democrat who has qualified for the ballot so far.
The GOP field will include more than a half-dozen contenders. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has solid leads over Obama in head-to-head matchups, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is locked in a statistical tie with Obama.
Smith suggested that Obama's struggles in New Hampshire offer a warning for the president's re-election prospects.
"It matters who the candidate is, but even against Ron Paul he's not at 50 percent," Smith said. "He could bounce back up. But it's not good right now."