By Jonathan Martin and Maggie HabermanFor POLITICO.com
President Barack Obama likes sports. He likes beer. He likes sports bars. And he wants to make sure voters see that on the campaign trail.
And, by way of contrast, he'd also like to remind the electorate about who doesn't seem to enjoy bars, or sports, or sports bars. Hint: It's the other candidate running for president, the guy who happens to be a teetotaler and who refers to "sport" as though he were doing an impression of Mr. Burns or an English Olympics official.
As both Obama and Mitt Romney look to find any advantage heading into the final nine weeks of a nip-and-tuck presidential race, the president and his advisers are dispensing with subtlety and launching a suds-and-sports tour of America aimed at burnishing his regular-guy appeal.
If it sounds familiar, it's because Republicans have long sought to win the who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with campaign, as George W. Bush did hands down in both 2000 and 2004.
Now, though, the cleat is on the other foot and Republicans are facing a bit of cosmic payback in trying to win with a nominee of their own who struggles to connect with the people.
Enter Obama, jock and newfound habitu of sports-themed watering holes across the land.
Just since July, Obama has stopped at four different bars to quaff a cold one, bought a round of Bud Lights at the Iowa State Fair and released his White House microbrew recipe, according to CBS News reporter Mark Knoller, who keeps meticulous records of the president's activities.
And in the past few weeks, he's begun finding his way to sports bars where two of the country's favorite leisure pursuits are combined.
"I've been missing football a little too much," he admitted at The Point After in Sioux City on the opening weekend of college football this month.
Last Saturday night he walked into Gators Dockside, an Orlando sports bar, pantomiming an alligator chop with his arms the signature move University of Florida Gators fans make at games.
Even during his speeches, Obama has been finding a way to get in sports references.
Outside of Des Moines, Iowa, he began his remarks on the first Saturday of September by giving a nod to what many in the audience were thinking: "College football is in the air. We will try to get you home in time to see the Hawkeyes and the Cyclones. I know we've got kickoff later."
And when the NFL kicked off this past Sunday, the president began his remarks at an event in Melbourne, Fla., with an assurance: "The most important thing I have to say is football starts today. So we intend to be finished to get home in time for kickoff."
Some of this is geared toward appealing to male voters, whom Obama struggles with compared to women, and convincing everyday Americans that their arugula-eating president is no snob. But it's hard to believe the president would be determined to demonstrate his passion for beer and football if he were running against, say, Tim Pawlenty, who was known to throw down his gloves on the ice from time to time growing up in Minnesota.
"Everything in presidential campaigns is by design," said White House and Democratic campaign veteran Jonathan Prince. "And if it's not, they're doing something wrong."
Prince, who has written on the potential pitfalls when it comes to candidates and food, put it this way: "Bill Clinton used to go to McDonalds. Sure he liked McDonalds, but he was also driving a contrast with Bush 41."
He continued: "The real question is, does the candidate seem authentic when he's doing it? I thought it was authentic when George W. Bush was eating nachos, and I think it is now that Barack Obama is doing it."
On the sports front, there's no doubting this SportsCenter-watching president's ardor for the gridiron. But his seemingly newfound taste for ordering - if not always finishing domestic drafts and lapel-grabbing declarations of love for football are almost certainly done with an eye toward Romney. The introverted president might be just as happy, if not more so, curling up in the White House with a good book than sipping a domestic beer with strangers at The Penalty Box, The Bullpen or whatever sports bar he'll find his way into between now and November.
Asked about the strategy, Obama's campaign offers a nothing-to-see-here response.
"There's no secret agenda here we said at the outset of the campaign we wanted to make sure that the president would be able to campaign in smaller, unfiltered settings where he'd be able to interact one-on-one with voters," said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
Romney's campaign dismisses Obama's just-folks tour as wasted time when bigger issues loom.
"Hope he's buying all the rounds," said Romney strategist Stuart Stevens. "He's one of the few people doing great in the Obama economy."
The Republican's Mormon faith precludes him drinking alcohol, so he doesn't go to pubs. But sports have been a point of difficulty for Romney. When asked about both NASCAR and football, Romney cited his relationships with wealthy team owners instead of discussing players or drivers.
And he's become so cautious about the topic that he appears reluctant to say much of anything now. Passing out hot dogs before a NASCAR race in Richmond last Saturday, Romney twice ignored a question about whether he was a racing fan. Asked later about his favorite driver, he responded: "There's a lot of drivers I like."
Booze and sports are, of course, mere stand-ins for the actual issue Obama is trying to exploit that he can relate more easily to average Americans than a son of privilege like Romney.
Whether it's Obama making the sports bar circuit, letting himself be lifted off the ground by a pizza shop owner-cum-power lifter or Vice President Joe Biden cozying up to a female biker in a diner, the subtext is all the same: Here's something it's hard to picture Romney pulling off.
Republicans ran a similar cultural campaign against John Kerry in 2004, but it was hardly implicit. Kerry gave Republicans a lot to work with that year, such as when he mistakenly called the Green Bay Packers' iconic stadium Lambert Field.
"I got some advice for him," George W. Bush said in Wisconsin after Kerry's fumble. "If someone offers you a cheesehead, don't say you want some wine, just put it on your head and take a seat at Lambeau Field."
Jabbed Vice President Dick Cheney: "The next thing is, he'll be convinced Vince Lombardi is a foreign leader."
The line among Republicans is that the problems the nation is facing at the moment are too severe for voters to be moved by who does or does not know about the intricacies of the BCS.
"I think Americans would rather have a president that drinks chocolate milk and actually has a plan to get our country working again than an armchair quarterback who participates in the not-so-subtle bar game of 'beers around the swing states,'" said Texas Republican strategist Rob Johnson.
Yet Romney's campaign appreciates the importance of voters having a connection with presidential candidates, or else they wouldn't have devoted a significant portion of stage time at their convention to trying to humanize the former Massachusetts governor. Obama's just doing the same thing, one beer at a time.
"All of the campaigning is designed to connect [Obama] to ordinary people in ordinary places, and a big part of the messaging of the Democratic convention was that Barack Obama and Joe Biden get your pain, understand your struggles and the other side doesn't," said GOP strategist Steve Schmidt.
Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman are reporters for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.