GWEN IFILL: The state of the nation's economy has become the main battleground for the 2012 campaign. That was the president's focus today as he traveled to North Carolina. And it is likely to be front and center tonight as well, as Republicans take to the stage for their first New Hampshire debate.
Judy Woodruff has our report.
JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama pledged to make good on his promise to grow the economy today at an energy-efficient lighting plant in North Carolina.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We stabilized the economy. We prevented a financial meltdown. An economy that was shrinking is now growing. We have added more than two million private sector jobs over the last 15 months alone.
BARACK OBAMA: ... but I'm still not satisfied. I will not be satisfied until everyone who wants a good job that offers some security has a good job that offers security.
BARACK OBAMA: Keep up the great work.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The president came to push training for jobs in new industries like clean energy. Mr. Obama toured the plant with GE chairman Jeff Immelt, head of his Competitiveness Council, before that group met on job creation.
JEFFREY IMMELT, General Electric: Jobs are both important for both the economy, but also for the confidence of the country.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In traveling to North Carolina, the state with the 10th highest unemployment rate in the country, and the site of his slimmest margin of victory in the 2008 presidential race, the president tried to brighten a gloomy economic picture as the 2012 contest gains steam.
With the national unemployment rate up in May to 9.1 percent, the economy has become topic-A in the campaign. Today, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican front-runner, released a new Web video -- a twist on the president's recent characterization of current economic difficulties as bumps on the road to recovery.
MAN: I am an American, not a bump in the road.
MAN: I'm an American, not a bump in the road.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Yesterday, Republican contenders took aim at the president on Sunday's political talk shows.
Former Pa. Sen. Rick Santorum faulted Mr. Obama's record on manufacturing.
RICK SANTORUM, (R) presidential candidate: I come from Pennsylvania. We still make things there. And it's -- a manufacturing economy is really important. And I think what we have had is, we have not had a policy that's focused on trying to create those kinds of jobs.
JUDY WOODRUFF: While one Republican who hasn't formally declared, Jon Huntsman, the president's former ambassador to China, called his ex-boss a failure on the economic front.
JON HUNTSMAN JR., (R) former Utah governor: Certainly, over the course of two years, there's been insufficient movement. And now people kind of back away and they say, oh, let's look at and assess the last two years and make a -- make a judgment about that. So, I have found, in politics, you have got about two- to two-and-a-half years after you have been elected to get something done and to move out in a positive direction on something as important as the economy. And here we are.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But even as the GOP field united against the president, they also took aim at each other, as former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty connected the health care law Romney pushed in Massachusetts with the president's health care overhaul.
TIM PAWLENTY, (R) presidential candidate: You don't have to take my word for it. You can take President Obama's word for it. President Obama said that he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare.
And so, we now have the same features -- essentially the same features. The president's own words is that he patterned in large measure Obamacare after what happened in Massachusetts.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part, Mr. Obama travels to Florida this evening for a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser, while his Republican opponents face off tonight in person at a debate in New Hampshire, site of the first-in-the-nation primary.
And for more on the politics of the 2012 campaign, we turn to NewsHour Political Editor David Chalian. He joins us from Manchester, N.H., where he will be covering tonight's Republican presidential debate for us.
David, good to see you back in New Hampshire. What are we expecting tonight?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, as you said, Judy, this is not the first debate of the primary season. It's actually the second debate.
There was an earlier one in South Carolina. But this is the first one with most of the major players. You have the front-running candidate, Mitt Romney, showing up this time, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann. The last two have not debated before. Neither has Romney. So, you are seeing a new crowd on the stage.
And since most of the players are finally sort of in this race, in this unsettled field that we have been talking about, this debate is getting a ton more attention, also because, as you pointed out, some of those economic numbers. These candidates are sort of ready to pounce on the president.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is their main job, David, to go after the president or to begin to differentiate themselves from one another?
DAVID CHALIAN: I think you will see much more of the former, not so much of the latter.
I do think that they see this as an opportunity to really go after the president where they think he is weakest. And that is on the economy. Now, some of these candidates are not that well-known. So, for someone like a Tim Pawlenty, it is an opportunity to introduce himself to the sort of narrow audience of Republican primary voters that are going to watch this debate, activists that are really tuning in right now.
You saw, over the weekend, he tried to differentiate himself a little bit on health care from Mitt Romney. But I don't think you're going to see fireworks explode on the stage. That would surprise me, Judy, if we saw that. I think this is going to be much more about training their sort of fire at the president, because they're in a competition to show Republican-based voters who can be toughest to take on the president.
The goal here for Republican voters is to get a nominee that can actually beat Barack Obama in November of 2012.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And it is also, at this point, about raising money, isn't it?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, there -- that is a reality for all these candidates. And the depressed economy is not -- hurting. I have talked to a lot of campaign advisers up here today. Across the board, everyone, of course, is trying to lower expectations of how much they're going to be able to raise this quarter, but they all say they're having a tough time.
And that's another reason why, you know, somebody like Michele Bachmann or a Herman Cain or somebody who really wants to come up with a barb against the president that gets all the attention and played on cable news and linked out on the Internet everywhere, because it is an opportunity to then take that moment and sell it to donors, say, hey, look, I can really take it to Barack Obama. Why don't you donate to my campaign?
So, that is part of what tonight is about as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about Newt Gingrich, David. This is his first debate, first national television appearance, really, since his campaign imploded just about a week ago. His -- his major staff, his -- his senior staff just walked out on him. What are we looking for from Newt Gingrich?
DAVID CHALIAN: This is a huge opportunity for Newt Gingrich. Obviously, his campaign is in shambles. It is practically nonexistent after all those staffers and advisers walked out last week.
But this is the kind of moment that Newt Gingrich always told us his campaign would be about. He wanted to have an impact in the debates. He wanted to influence the policy positions of the candidates and help shape the policy positions of the party. So, he needs a moment that shows that he is the ideas man he sells himself as inside the party.
If he can have that kind of a moment, he can start to rebuild a little bit, live off the land, if you will, as a candidate. Since he doesn't have much infrastructure around him, he just needs to start building some sense of relevance, because if he doesn't have a sort of big moment that shows that he's going to have an impact on this race, he will start drifting towards irrelevancy real fast.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, President Obama also on the road today, as we showed a minute ago, in North Carolina, talking about the economy -- not a coincidence.
DAVID CHALIAN: Not a coincidence at all. Barack Obama's basically doing three key things today. He's out in a key battleground state that he wants to win again in 2012, talking about the economy, making sure voters see he's working on the issue of most concern to them.
Remember, we just saw a poll last week, Judy -- 66 percent of the country thinks it's on the wrong track; 59 percent disapprove of the way he handles the economy. But then he's going to Florida tonight to fund-raise, because he needs to build up a huge war chest to make sure that he's not a vulnerable incumbent just on the economy. He wants all the resources to be able to defend attacks.
And he actually even sent his former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, up here to New Hampshire to start pushing back on all the Republican attacks that are coming their way tonight.
JUDY WOODRUFF: If we didn't know better, we would think it was farther along in the election cycle.
DAVID CHALIAN: And the campaign season is officially here, Judy, have no doubt.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, David Chalian reporting from Manchester, N.H.
And, David, we will be talking to you tomorrow night -- you will be back here -- about how this debate went.
DAVID CHALIAN: Looking forward to it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: David, thank you.
DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you.