By Jeff Mason
POLAND, Ohio (Reuters) - Flying on Air Force One to Ohio on Thursday, President Barack Obama confided to his advisers that this, his final campaign, made him think about his first race for state senator in Illinois in 1996, which he won.
Several hours later, after riding a campaign bus into middle America, past corn fields and strip malls, Obama talked off-the-cuff at a campaign event about those reflections and his last race as a candidate.
"One way or another, this will be my last campaign," he told locals sitting on picnic tables at a park in Parma, Ohio, before going through the highlights of his life in public office.
Obama has reason to muse about his prior political battles and his future. Unemployment remains high. Polls with Republican Mitt Romney are tight. Money is not flowing into his campaign coffers as quickly as he hoped.
So as he tries to convince voters to give him a second term, the Democratic incumbent did what served him well in 2008: the "retail politics" of kissing babies and shaking hands without showing boredom.
That skill was on clear display during the two-day swing, his first bus trip of this election cycle.
He lifted children, visited with patrons over a cheeseburger lunch, bought corn at a vegetable stand, sipped beer at a bar, and eased - to the little extent that he could - out of the presidential bubble of Washington.
"I've been eating a lot," he declared at a campaign stop in Poland, Ohio.
Showing a human touch in the Rust Belt of Ohio and Pennsylvania could be critical to Obama's chances of re-election, which will depend largely on his ability in these states to win over blue-collar workers, many of whom have been hurt by the economy.
While his opponent Romney has a reputation for being stiff and wooden, Obama can seem aloof at times, but on the campaign trail he appeared to relish meeting regular Americans.
At a bar in Amherst, Obama moved from table to table, chatting with patrons and lingering to talk with one group of mostly Republican locals about education policy.
"Very charismatic guy, but I just don't like his politics," said Dan DeNicola, 54, after speaking with the president. He said the Democrat had not won his vote.
DIFFERENT AS AN INCUMBENT
Winning over skeptical voters this year is a different exercise than it was in 2008. Obama is now an incumbent with an economic record.
He came under criticism from Republicans on Friday for weak monthly jobs numbers and an unemployment rate that stayed at 8.2 percent. Obama said that private-sector job creation was a "step in the right direction" and portrayed his economic vision as an effort to help working Americans.
"I want to get back to a time when middle class families and those working to get into the middle class have some basic security. That's our goal," he said in Poland, Ohio.
Economic conditions aside, the differences in Obama's campaign from four years ago are evident.
Instead of a bus decked out with his campaign's colors, the president rides in a shiny black bus with the presidential seal as its only ornament. Red and blue lights flicker on the sides as if it were a giant police car.
His motorcade, which includes two ambulances if he were to get sick, is some 25 vehicles long.
The length of his trips are different, too. In 2008, as a U.S. senator, Obama would go out on the trail for weeks at a time. This trip, with stops in Ohio and Pennsylvania, lasted two days and was scheduled to get him back to the White House in time to sign a transportation bill into law on Friday.
His campaign music has been updated. He still bounds on to stages with his 2008 signature song, U2's "City of Blinding Lights" playing, but his closing song on Friday was new: Bruce Springsteen's working class tune "We Take Care of our Own" - perhaps a subtle dig at Romney's past as an executive at Bain Capital and its outsourcing of jobs.
David Axelrod, a longtime Obama adviser and chief campaign strategist, said the president was glad to be back on the road, even under different conditions from 2008.
"There are more challenges when you're the incumbent, and you know there's restrictions in terms of your range of movement, the time you can spend and so on," he said.
"For two years when he was running (the first time), he was out among people every day, interacting with people and so on, Axelrod said. "And you know you don't have that luxury as president. So this is a great release for him."
Obama watched sports, talked basketball, and ate ribs on the bus between stops on Thursday. On Friday he started the morning at a diner, where he ordered eggs, bacon, grits and toast.
He refined his message at campaign stops along the way. Romney's business success was in part due to the outsourcing of American jobs abroad, while Obama helped revive the U.S. automobile industry, he said.
Obama flaunted his 2010 healthcare law, which the Supreme Court ruled last week was constitutional.
"I'll work with anybody who wants to work with me to continue to improve our healthcare system and our healthcare laws. But the law I passed is here to stay," he said to applause in Maumee, Ohio, standing in front of a barn with a large American flag on its roof.
Obama will have four more months to replicate that message.
"There is this sense that, you know, 120 days left in what will be the last campaign of (Obama's) life. He feels that," said Axelrod, who sees this campaign as his last as well.
The tour took a tragic turn on Friday when Josephine "Ann" Harris, 70, the owner of a restaurant in Akron, Ohio, died about an hour after serving breakfast to Obama.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Philip Barbara)