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NBC -- First Read

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By Ali Weinberg

President Obama today embarks on a two-day, four-time-zone tour to highlight his administration's efforts in both traditional and alternative energy production.

But despite the stated official purpose for the trip, there will be strong political undercurrents at each stop: three of the four states Obama will visit -- Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio -- are vital to his re-election chances, while the fourth, Oklahoma, is at the heart of a political maelstrom over exactly the issue Obama will talk about: energy production.

One other factor unites the four states Obama will visit: each suffers from stubbornly high gas prices, a reminder that even as the president seeks to highlight his administration's efforts in energy production, there's no substitute in voters' minds -- or wallets -- for lowering prices at the pump.

Nevada sunshine

President Obama will first stop in Boulder Springs, Nev., to showcase the Copper Mountain Solar 1 Facility, the largest photovoltaic plant in the United States. This visit will allow the president to highlight his efforts to diversify the "country's energy portfolio," according to the White House -- one of the cornerstones of his stated "all-of-the-above" energy production strategy.

Nevada is also a critical part of the president's re-election strategy in the West. He turned the state blue in 2008 with 55 percent, higher than George W. Bush's 51-47 margin of victory in 2004.

Boulder Springs, where Obama visits Wednesday, is in Clark County (home to Las Vegas), one of only three counties Obama won in 2008, along with Washoe and Carson City. But they are population centers.

The president needs a strong performance in those two counties to win Nevada again, said Nevada political commentator and journalist Jon Ralston.

"The way Democrats win statewide in Nevada is generally to build up a huge bank of votes in Clark County, which has two-thirds of the population," he said, "and then do OK in Washoe County to make up for the hemorrhaging in the other rural counties."

But Ralston cautioned that Obama's approval in the state has slipped recently; a poll conducted by Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies in late February found that 47 percent of likely voters would re-elect Obama, while 49% would elect a "new person" (the poll did not, however, test head-to-head matchups between Obama and hypothetical Republican nominees).

Potential slippage could be exacerbated by continued high gas prices (averaging $3.96 in Boulder City on Tuesday), as well as that the unemployment (12.7%) and foreclosure rates (one in every 278 Nevada homes is in foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac) are the highest in the country.

Ralston added that while Nevada's sunny weather makes it a natural fit for the president to tout his solar energy plan, voters in the state, as elsewhere in the country, are likely more concerned about filling up their cars and keeping their homes than they are advances in solar-energy production.

"There's a reason to wonder if this is the right message for Nevada," Ralston said. "I think most people can't relate to solar energy in Boulder City; they're thinking, "What are you going to do to help me with my underwater mortgage or how are you going to help me get a job, Mr. President?'"

Nevada's state politics do, however, offer the Obama administration a silver lining in an unlikely, probably unintentional advocate: Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. Though unemployment remains the highest in the country, Sandoval has highlighted the 2-point drop in the rate since Sandoval took office -- the conditions for which Obama could argue he helped create.

During an interview with CNN Feb. 3rd, Sandoval noted, "When I came into the office one year ago, our unemployment rate was 14.9. I think we have done well in terms of getting it down to 12.6."

When asked by the interviewer whether President Obama could also take some credit in the falling unemployment rate, Sandoval answered, "Well, he can try to do that" before moving on to federal regulation of the mining industry.

"If I were the Obama campaign I'd pull Sandoval quotes out and put them on TV here," Ralston said of the governor's optimistic outlook.

Drilling in New Mexico

After the president speaks in Nevada, Air Force One will jet over to New Mexico, where the president will speak against a backdrop of federal oil and gas production fields to tout his administration's "commitment to expanding domestic oil and gas production," according to the White House.

While Obama won the state in 2008 with 56 percent, anchoring his victory in urban areas with large Hispanic populations like Albuquerque (60% of the vote), Santa Fe (77%) and Las Cruces (58%), he took only 27% in Lea County, where he will be speaking Wednesday.

Joe Monahan, author of the political blog New Mexico Politics, said Obama's visit to solid-red "enemy territory" sends a message, intentional or not, that the campaign is looking to potentially expand its playing field in the key re-election battleground.

"Anytime he's going to set foot in an area that's traditionally Republican territory, that's going to make them a bit nervous. He's going down there showing his flag," Monahan said.

But terminally high gas prices (averaging $3.75 in Lea County on Tuesday) will continue to plague him in New Mexico as it will in other top swing states, especially because those costs hit one of Obama's key constituencies in the state -- Hispanic voters, many of whom are low-income earners -- particularly hard, Monahan said.

"It's really a political thermometer, and it doesn't surprise anyone that he's down in Eddy County trying to show he's doing all he says he can to promote a productive energy policy," he added, referring to a county that houses Carlsbad, near where the president is touring.

The political pipeline in Oklahoma

The president begins the second day of his energy tour in Cushing, Okla., not to make a showing in a key re-election state -- John McCain won it in 2008 with 65 percent and is the only state in the country where every county voted more Republican than 2008.

Rather, it's an effort to put his mark on a politically red-hot issue in both Washington and on the campaign trail -- the energy company TransCanada's Keystone oil pipeline.

The Obama administration rejected a portion of the company's plan that would have extended over U.S. borders from Canada, an international pipeline over which the federal government has diplomatic authority. But TransCanada is going ahead with plans to build a domestic line from Cushing to the Gulf of Mexico, which does not require presidential approval.

While President Obama has stopped short of taking responsibility for approving the Cushing pipeline, he has touted it in past appearances as an example of the kind of drilling he says his administration wants to increase.

""We're approving dozens of new pipelines. We just announced that we'll do whatever we can to speed up construction of a pipeline in Oklahoma that's going to relieve a bottleneck and get more oil to the Gulf -- to the refineries down there -- and that's going to help create jobs, encourage more production," Obama said at a March 7th energy policy speech in Charlotte, N.C.

But Rep. Frank Lucas, whose Oklahoma district encompasses Cushing, says the president's speech there Thursday, which he will make in front of pipes that will form the new Keystone pipeline, is "a P.R. event celebrating what private enterprise has done with private money without any influence of the White House."

Lucas added that "while it's good the president is celebrating what private enterprise and money is doing" he said it was "a shame he wouldn't give permission" to the portion of the pipeline that would extend through Canada.

Republicans were also quick to pan news that Obama will announce during the Cushing visit that his administration will expedite the permit process for the southern portion of the pipeline, saying he is once again seeking to take ownership of a process that does not involve the White House.

"This is like a governor personally issuing a fishing license," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. "The President's attempt to take credit for a pipeline he blocked and personally lobbied Congress against is staggering in its disingenuousness. This portion of the pipeline is being built in spite of the President, not because of him."

In addition to the national political undertones of his visit to Cushing, gas prices will also loom over the president there -- while the average is on the lower end of the cities he's visiting, it is still hovering around $3.62 in Payne County, where Cushing is.

Research in Ohio

Obama will end his trip in Ohio, a Midwestern state whose narrow 51-47 percent victory the president is looking to repeat in 2012. He's already visited the state twice this year -- once to make remarks on the economy and visit with a family at their home and once to bring British Prime Minister David Cameron to an NCAA basketball game.

On Thursday, Obama will highlight the capabilities of American universities in energy research and development at Ohio State University in Columbus, whose county he won 49-40 percent in 2008 (and whose No. 2-seeded basketball team is in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen).

Ohio is yet another key portion of the president's Midwestern path to victory, and, in fact, a late February NBC-Marist poll found that while Ohio voters were split evenly, 45-45 percent, on his job approval, he fared better than Mitt Romney, GOP frontrunner, by double digits, 50-38 percent.

But Ohio's gas prices -- as high as $4.03 in Columbus on Tuesday -- present a different challenge for the incumbent looking to win over the state's key blue-collar voters.


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