AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Iowa is once again a political destination. Today, Mitt Romney was campaigning in Des Moines. And next week, President Obama spends three days campaigning in the state. It hasn't seen this much attention from presidential candidates since it hosted the first caucuses back in January.
NPR's Ari Shapiro is traveling with the Romney campaign. He joins us now.
And Ari, why is Iowa getting so much love from the candidates now?
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, not because of its size. In 2008, Iowa had only seven electoral votes and, this year, it's down to six. I mean, compare that to a place like Florida with 29 electoral votes or Pennsylvania with 20 or Ohio with 18, but even though Iowa is kind of puny, a close election could hinge on those six electoral votes. And polls suggest that the state could go either way. President Obama has a slight lead here, but it's not a very wide one.
CORNISH: So what was Mitt Romney's message today?
SHAPIRO: Well, he spoke at a rally at a sweltering school auditorium. The head of the school district said they saved taxpayer money by not air-conditioning it. And Romney talked about the tough employment situation, even though, in Iowa, unemployment is about three points below the national average of 8.3 percent. Romney also accused President Obama of trying to make the United States a government-dependent society. Here's part of what he said.
MITT ROMNEY: When it comes to the spirit of America, I want to restore the spirit of independence. I do not want to install a spirit of dependence on government.
SHAPIRO: And, connected to that theme, Romney also repeated an accusation he began making yesterday, where he says that President Obama is trying to gut the Welfare to Work provisions of the Welfare Reform of the 1990s. Lots of independent fact-checkers have said that's a false claim. Even the Republican architect of the welfare law told NPR in an interview that these changes that the Obama administration is making will strengthen rather than weaken efforts to get welfare recipients back into jobs. But Romney stuck by the claim.
And then he also briefly mentioned his belief in American energy, which he talks about a lot, but that has a special significance in Iowa where there's a big debate over wind energy tax credits. The president supports those tax credits and Romney does not.
CORNISH: Now, President Obama's going to have a chance to talk to voters in Iowa next week and I understand his campaign has a big footprint in the state already.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. The Obama campaign has been really aggressive about setting up field offices and volunteer networks in the state, even though the Democrats did not have a January contest the way the Republicans did. You remember, Iowa, of course, was key for President Obama in 2008. That's where he first defeated Hillary Clinton and his campaign has kept a strong presence in the state to the point that, this year, after the Republican caucuses in January, Mitt Romney's campaign moved out of its Iowa headquarters in an old Blockbuster Video in Des Moines and the Obama campaign moved in, opening up a field office.
CORNISH: Now, Mitt Romney did not win those caucuses. I mean, he ended up losing them by just a handful of votes to Rick Santorum, so what challenges does the Romney campaign face in the state?
SHAPIRO: Well, this is a state with a strong evangelical and social conservative thread. Those are the voters who gave Michele Bachmann her win in the Ames Straw Poll. They gave Rick Santorum his win in the caucuses by just a hair. Ron Paul also did very well in Iowa with his Libertarian message. You know, even Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry had their moments in the spotlight.
Mitt Romney has never been a perfect fit for Iowa. Those evangelical social conservative voters have always been a tough sell for him. So now, in addition to winning over the undecided and independent voters in the state, he needs to make sure he energizes the base that was slightly cool to him during the early days of this race.
CORNISH: NPR's Ari Shapiro traveling with the Romney campaign in Iowa. Ari, thank you.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.