Perhaps no region of the country better illustrates President Barack Obama's political vulnerabilities than the Mountain West.
He is hoping to ease some of those concerns in a Western swing blending town hall appearances and visits to national parks that began Friday in Montana.
Democrats have made recent election inroads in the region by successfully courting independents, Republican crossovers and conservative-to-moderate loyalists in their own party. But it's these very voters -- gun owners, civil libertarians, private property advocates -- who seem to be turning away from the president across the country because of deep-seated concerns about expanding government and soaring budget deficits.
They are people who bristle at big business bailouts and decry government's reach into their own lives. They don't see Obama's stimulus plan jump-starting the economy or boosting employment. They fret about the enormous price tags of his sweeping proposals to overhaul health care and revamp energy policy.
The president kicked off a four-state Western push for his plan in an airport hangar near Bozeman, Mont., with a pointed joke: He said Montana has bears, moose and elk, and "in Washington, you just have mostly bull."
Obama appeared ready to campaign. He showed up in a suit, but no tie. As he began to take questions, he took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves.
"I know there's been a lot of attention paid to some of the town hall meetings that are going on around the country, especially when tempers flare," Obama said.
He said that what wasn't being shown were the gatherings in which people "are coming together and having a civil, honest, often difficult conversation about how we can improve the system."
Friday's crowd, estimated by the White House at about 1,300 people, was mostly supportive, cheering Obama frequently, though he did get a few pointed questions. One came from Randy Rathie, who called himself "a proud NRA member," referring to the National Rifle Association, and said he got most of his news from cable TV.
"You can't tell us how you're going to pay for this," Rathie said of Obama's health care overhaul. "The only way you're going to get that money is raise our taxes."
"You are absolutely right," Obama said. "I can't cover another 46 million people for free. I can't do that. We're going to have to find money from somewhere."
He noted a congressional estimate that legislation being considered in the Senate could cost $800 billion to $900 billion over 10 years.
Obama has proposed higher taxes for families earning more than $250,000 a year. He said there were also other ways to find money, including streamlining the system and eliminating what he said were subsidies to insurance companies.
"But your point is well-taken," Obama said. "I appreciate your question and the respectful way you asked it."
Later, Rathie told CNN he was "well-impressed" with how Obama handled his question. "Now he's given me his word, personally, that he's not going to raise my taxes," Rathie said, but at the same time, "they're trying to put in a program that they don't even understand."
While hundreds demonstrated outside, there was no sign of protesters on the airstrip where Air Force One landed nor inside the hangar. Obama has another town hall today in Grand Junction, Colo.
"People are ready to see him move beyond the rhetoric. People want to see jobs come back. We want to see the economy recover. So we're still, I think, waiting to see that," said Chris Lawson, 30, who voted for Obama in November and said he doesn't regret it. The Littleton, Colo., resident expressed worries about health care in particular, saying: "We are clearly moving toward more government in more people's lives. ...That's not a good thing, more government."
Another Obama voter, Eric Schreiber, 44, of Denver, argued it's too early to judge the president. But, he added, Obama definitely hasn't sold him on the health care overhaul. "It's a good idea to do health reform, but I think everybody wants to know more about how it will work," Schreiber said.
Obama is hoping he can allay such worries as he promotes his plan at town hall-style events in reliably Republican areas in Montana and in Grand Junction, near the Utah state line. The first family also plans to visit Yellowstone and Grand Canyon to highlight the country's national parks.
Just eight months ago, the president took office with sky-high job approval ratings, the first Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson to win the White House with more than 50 percent of the popular vote.
Since his inauguration, Obama has watched his support slide nationally. It hovered at 55 percent in a recent AP-GfK poll, though other surveys show him under 50 percent.
Out-of-power Republicans have tagged Obama as a classic big-spending, big-government liberal, and those gripes may have resonated with independents and centrists who polls show have turned away from Obama or whose support is soft. The GOP's message may be particularly well-received in the mountain West, a region traditionally wary of the federal government.
"Democrats had some success last year. Since then, I think the president has slipped not just a little but a great deal," said Dave Hansen, head of the Utah GOP who once held the same position in Montana. "He's a charming, charismatic guy, but all of a sudden the issues are taking over, and it's not going over well."
Tracking polls by Gallup from January through June show that of the 10 states where Obama's approval rating was the lowest, five are in the Mountain West. They include the two states Obama is visiting this weekend as well as Wyoming, Idaho and Utah.
Those findings raise the question: Will the recent Democratic successes in the region last?
"I don't think we can say that yet," said Bob Loevy, a political scientist at Colorado College.
In dueling radio and Internet addresses today, President Barack Obama and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch face off over health care reform and what kind of affect it will have on most Americans. › B3