The Drum (ABC online)

By John Barron

When Barack Obama filed papers with the US Federal Electoral commission declaring his candidacy for re-election in 2012 this week, he did more than tick a box to allow him to raise and spend money in an effort to win a second term.

(Although with a war chest of a billion dollars in the Obama campaigns sights, no wonder they wanted to get cracking.)

He also began to sketch out the possible themes of his campaign and address some of his weaknesses.

In tune with the times, the announcement came in the form of a video emailed to the massive database of around five million Obama supporters built up during 2007-08.

The president's campaign staff in Chicago know about 20 per cent of people who voted for him over John McCain two and a half years ago now say they will vote for a Republican next year.

Obama needs to either win them back, or at least make them so discouraged by their choices they decide to stay at home and sit out a non-compulsory vote.

His re-election launch video had no soaring rhetoric, no boasts of hard yet historic achievements like healthcare reform or allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military.

Instead it featured ordinary folks like "Ed of North Carolina" who said "I don't agree with Obama on everything, but I respect him and I trust him".

Hardly a ringing endorsement, although no doubt they will come. Right now it's about rebuilding the base of volunteers and donors that made his "improbable journey" to the White House possible. Along the way Obama will need to bring back supporters who either think he went too far or didn't go far enough.

Meanwhile, Obama's only significant rival remains former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who is now doing what Senator Obama did in 2007 - spending a lot of time wooing the voters of first-to-vote Iowa.

Pawlenty gained some significant support himself this week when for the first time he was joined on the campaign trail by an unassuming-looking man is his early 50's named Eric Woolson.

A former small-town Iowa newspaper reporter, Woolson looks more like a Little League baseball coach than arguably the most crucial Republican campaign operative in this hugely influential state.

In 2008, Eric Woolson guided former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to a win in the Iowa Caucuses, in 2000 he did the same for Texas governor George W Bush.

When I spoke to Woolson after Obama's campaign launch this week he was just back from a two-day campaign sweep in Iowa with Tim Pawlenty, even though he describes himself as a "supporter" at this stage rather than being on signed-on staff.

Woolson clearly thinks Obama is beatable in 2012 and that Pawlenty is the guy to do it, even potentially up against a billion-dollar candidate. He says while money can buy elections and is the "mother's milk of American politics" plenty of cashed-up candidates (including Steve Forbes and Mitt Romeny ) have failed.

Obama's healthcare reforms, Woolson says, remain deeply unpopular, and Americans are feeling "buyers remorse".

Obama's approval rating slid to an all-time low of 42 per cent according to Quinnipac last week.

A hypothetical matchup with Mike Huckabee, who hasn't announced if he's running, produced a tie. Pawlenty still trails far behind.

Eric Woolson has also worked for a Democratic presidential candidate - back in 1988 he was hand-picked by now vice president Joe Biden to run his ill-fated White House bid. So, if Woolson were to "cross the aisle" again and advise Obama, what would he tell the president he has to do to win a second term?

"I think that I would be telling him that on foreign policy he needs to take a course and stick with it, be a strong leader, I think voters are terribly concerned about that," he said.

"I would be telling him that rather than just cutting the federal budget eventually he's got to do something now, he's got to strike a deal with Republicans that cuts a significant amount of spending out of our budget because the United States can't continue on the path it's been on."

It's not advice Obama is likely to take, but instructive as to the line of attack from Pawlenty and his Republican rivals.

For Obama to win back the middle ground and have more folks like "Ed from North Carolina" vote for him next November, he will have to convince Americans that it is his opponents, and not him that are the risky, extremists.

John Barron presents Inside America on ABC NewsRadio, Sundays at 12:00pm (AEDT). He is also a Research Associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney