DAVENPORT, Iowa — Mitt Romney’s six-state bus swing through small cities and towns in New England, the Rust Belt and the industrial Midwest served as a clear reminder that his biggest ally in the presidential race is also his biggest foe: President Obama.
Even among the crowds that turned out to hear the presumptive GOP nominee, it was evident that this election remains very much a referendum on Mr. Obama’s first term in office.
Joseph Calasante, for instance, fought back tears when asked why he backed Mr. Romney, just minutes after the former Massachusetts governor’s first stop at a picturesque farm in New Hampshire.
The biggest reason? Mr. Obama.
“Obama makes us feel like we are a bunch of Muslims,” the 74-year-old said. “We don’t bow to kings of other countries. Obama bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia, and only a Muslim would bow to the king of Saudi Arabia. We don’t bow to anyone. That is what Mitt Romney is bringing back.”
Days later, Cheryl Goodson braved the stormy weather to attend a free pancake breakfast in the Cleveland suburbs. Sitting beneath an umbrella, the 64-year-old retiree snapped that if the media had done a better job of vetting Mr. Obama in the first place, he never would have won the White House.
“My opinion of Obama?” Ms. Goodson said. “He never ran a lemonade stand. So how would he ever run a country this large?”
While it may have been inevitable that anti-Obama voters would turn out on the campaign trail to see Mr. Romney, it was evident that the dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama among the pro-Romney crowds is fueling energy and excitement in the Republican camp.
A May Gallup poll showed Mr. Obama with an edge in voter enthusiasm among his supporters in 12 battleground states, including the states that Mr. Romney visited on his tour.
But that poll came shortly after Mr. Romney laid claim to the nomination after a bruising GOP primary. Now, nearly two months later, there are signs that Republicans have put the primary bickering behind them and are increasingly excited about pulling the lever for Mr. Romney — especially if it means getting rid of Mr. Obama.
“Every action [Mr. Obama] has taken has made the nation weaker,” said Jeff Moore as he waited in line at the pancake breakfast. The 50-year-old bartender said he had preferred former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in the GOP primary. But now that Mr. Romney is the presumptive candidate, he said, the former Massachusetts governor “is the horse we have to ride.”
Mr. Moore’s anger at the incumbent is palpable: Mr. Obama, he says, is trying to “break the spirit of the American people and kind of just beat us down to the point where we are going to say, ‘I give up.’”
Responses like that underscore the shift in the political dynamic since the last election, when Mr. Obama, then a freshman senator from Illinois, defeated Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
“In 2008, the economy was the driving issue for almost two-thirds of the electorate, and the same will be true again in 2012,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who led the McCain camp’s rural outreach efforts in the 2008 election. “The difference now is Obama is no longer a blank slate. … He is an incumbent president straddled with a weak economic record.”
With those political winds at his back, Mr. Romney set out on his first traditional campaign trip of the general election looking to stoke enthusiasm among the rural voters he will need to win the White House.
Over the five days of the “Every Town Counts” bus tour, voters got to see him in a variety of settings. He scooped ice cream in New Hampshire, picked up a meatball hoagie at a gas station in Pennsylvania and took the wheel of a replica steamboat on the Mississippi River.
The jaunt also gave him more chances to tell voters that he plans to repeal Mr. Obama’s federal health care overhaul, embrace the XL Keystone pipeline and balance the federal budget.
But by the time the trip wrapped up Tuesday in Michigan, it had become abundantly clear between Mr. Romney’s repeated attacks on the stump and the comments from campaign aides that the Romney camp thinks this fall hinges on convincing voters that the election is about the Obama record.
“It is a referendum on the state of the economy and the incumbent,” said Stuart Stevens, a top Romney aide.