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The battleground path less traveled: Why Obama's in Iowa for three days

Looking at the president's schedule, one might think it was primary season again.

He's spent the last three days in Iowa and then, this weekend, it's off to New Hampshire. What's next -- South Carolina and Florida? Well, maybe Florida.

Four of the top 10 hottest advertising markets right now are, in fact, in Iowa.

So why all the focus on these smaller states with few electoral votes -- since it is no longer primary season?

It's because there's a path for Obama to win reelection without needing to win the big toss-up states most think about -- Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina. But that path does not exist without Iowa and New Hampshire, which between them accounts for 10 electoral votes (six in Iowa, four in New Hampshire).

If Obama holds the Kerry-won 2004 states, including New Hampshire, and Obama adds Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico -- with a good turnout among Hispanics in the West -- he would be at 272, two electoral votes above the needed 270 to win reelection.

But without Iowa or New Hampshire that second path evaporates.

The president has faced something of an uphill climb in Iowa this cycle. He won the state that launched his candidacy in 2008 by 10 points, but this time around, polls show a toss up. Part of that is because Republicans had the state all to themselves for a year and were able to drive the message.

The president hopes to push a message of an improved economy -- Iowa's unemployment rate is better than the national average -- as well as Mitt Romney's opposition to the wind tax credit and even perhaps make a play for seniors with Paul Ryan picked as Romney's VP.

But there is still widespread pessimism. The luster has worn off. The question will be -- has it worn off enough to flip it to Romney?