By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's path to re-election in 2012 is likely to be narrower than in his first campaign because he is at risk of losing several traditionally Republican states he captured in 2008.
Obama dramatically expanded the political playing field in 2008, competing and winning in states that had not backed a Democrat for president in a generation, but next year's map could look more like President George W. Bush's tight 2004 re-election win over Democrat John Kerry.
The sputtering economy and unhappiness with Obama's leadership have battered his popularity nationwide, hitting him particularly hard in conservative states like North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia where in 2008 he broke Democratic losing streaks dating to the 1960s.
High unemployment and a declining manufacturing industry also have helped drive down his poll numbers in traditional Rust Belt battlegrounds like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which are crucial to his hopes of putting together the 270 electoral votes needed for re-election.
Obama won 365 electoral votes, awarded on a state-by-state basis, in a smashing 2008 victory that gave him 95 electoral votes to spare. This time around, his margin for error will be smaller, Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown said.
"He has a cushion, but it's going to be a lot closer than in 2008," Brown said. "It is hard to see, given the current situation, Obama winning states in 2012 that he did not win in 2008. The question is, how many more states does he lose?"
The Obama campaign has promised to push hard to compete in states like North Carolina and Virginia, where he was helped last time by a big voter turnout among blacks. In a sign of the commitment, the Democratic nominating convention will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina.
It was chosen over St. Louis, Missouri -- a state Obama narrowly lost in 2008 that many Democrats believe has drifted even further toward Republicans. Conservative Indiana also appears likely to be less welcoming to Obama.
Republicans scored big wins in Congress and governor's races last year on concerns about the economy and deficits, and Republican strategists say Obama will have a tougher campaign task in 2012 selling his record on spending and healthcare.
A DIFFERENT CAMPAIGN
"Last time Obama was able to get elected on inspiration -- he would change Washington, he's a new kind of leader, he was not George Bush," Republican strategist Jim Dyke said.
"There wasn't much of a record to judge him on and that will be different this time," he said. "He may still have that rhetorical flourish in his voice, but his hands are full of some very heavy policy positions he will have to explain."
In addition to the traditional big three battlegrounds -- Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida -- Nevada and Colorado will be critical to Obama's hopes.
Those two Western states and New Mexico are home to big Hispanic populations that Democrats hope will create a Western stronghold in 2012. Some Democrats hope to add Arizona to the mix.
Obama has stepped up his push for immigration reform on the campaign trail despite little chance for congressional approval before the election. Polls show Republican resistance on the issue has hardened Hispanic support for Democrats.
"No matter who is on their ticket, Republicans are going to have problems in 2012 with Latino voters," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN. Hispanics also could have an impact in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and be a factor in a few other states, he said.
A video featuring Obama campaign boss Jim Messina last month highlighted the importance of defending 12 states Obama won in 2008 by less than 15 percentage points -- Nevada, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.
In 2004, Democrat Kerry won only four of those -- Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
"Republicans are going to be fired up to take on President Obama," Messina said in the video, sent to Obama supporters. "This is not 2008."
The reapportionment of electoral votes based on the 2010 Census also will shift a few votes to Republican-leaning states. In 2008, Obama won eight of the 10 states losing seats.
The stubbornly high unemployment rate also will be vital to Obama's hopes, and several crucial 2012 battlegrounds have unemployment rates above the national average of 9 percent.
Nevada, where an influx of new residents and the growing Hispanic population propelled Obama to a 2008 win, has the highest state unemployment rate at 11.9 percent. Florida and North Carolina also have unemployment rates above 9 percent.
Rosenberg said the political map would be heavily influenced by how the economy fares in the next 18 months.
"A year from now, if the economy is in good shape, Obama gets re-elected. If it's not, he doesn't. It's that simple," he said.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)