Shortly after lunchtime on the day of the 2004 New Hampshire primary, Joe Lieberman's bus pulled up to an elementary school on the east side of Manchester. Waiting there for him were three men who clearly had been sleeping on the street before they, briefly, became part of the Connecticut senator's campaign. On a cue from a campaign staffer, as Lieberman descended from his coach with the assembled media watching, the three men began waving signs and energetically shouting, "Go Joe! Go Joe! … Joe-mentum! Joe-mentum!" Lieberman greeted a few voters, told reporters a somewhat sad anecdote about his lucky tie and got back on the bus to more cheers from his three biggest fans. When the votes were tallied that evening, Joe-mentum placed fifth.

This month New Hampshire will again occupy center stage in an American presidential race, and Manchester will be the backdrop of some of the wall-to-wall coverage. But except for those who get a few bucks and a free lunch in return for playing campaign scenery, the city's significant homeless population will be invisible in that narrative. So will the other issues facing the largest city in the Granite State, like a poverty rate 37 percent higher than the state average, a wave of layoffs this summer at a local hospital and a brewing debate over its designation as a "sanctuary city" for immigrants—none of it the stuff of gauzy campaign commercials.

"New Hampshire—even though it's more of a historically industrial state—it has a sort of pastoral image. Where they're campaigning or doing publicity in New Hampshire, it's in a barn or in a little town hall ... whereas Manchester or Portsmouth or smaller cities are more representative of the state," says Michael Bellefeuille, a Manchester native who runs a blog for an organization called Livable MHT (the acronym is a reference to the city's airport). "The image that they're portraying, it doesn't necessarily address the city."

But this is no surprise. U.S. presidential campaigns are built around appeals to the American heartland, a mythical place of farm families and simple wood-framed houses amid acres of wheat and corn. "They taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland, where they grew up: accountability and self-reliance," a certain Illinois senator said in a 2008 campaign commercial, "love of country, working hard without making excuses, treating your neighbor as you'd like to be treated." Sarah Palin got heat for referring to the "real America" but Barack Obama got a free pass for suggesting that loyalty and work ethic are somehow unique to the rural U.S.

Some of his predecessors were far more explicit. "The mobs of great cities add just so much to support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1781's Notes on the State of Virginia, and in a 1787 letter to James Madison, he added, "I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get plied upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe."

These weren't just idle words, noted planner Leonardo Vazquez in a 2006 Planetizen commentary: "Jefferson was able to hardwire an anti-urban bias into the culture of the United States" in denying any powers to cities and towns in the U.S. Constitution and organizing land purchases in a way that discouraged dense population. And these disparities only deepened over time. "I do think that overall, over the years, there is a consistent sort of anti-urban animus in Washington," says Roger Biles, a history professor at Illinois State University. "And historically a lot of that simply owed to the fact that a lot of the people who were elected to Congress and went there came from gerrymandered states where they were disproportionately representing the interests of rural people. Even as the nation became more and more urban, that wasn't reflected in the composition of Congress."

Today, some 87 million Americans—more than the population of Germany, France or the U.K.—live in cities with populations of 100,000 or more. Nearly a third of the U.S. population dwells in central cities; only a fifth lives in a rural setting. America's cities have built-in advantages for addressing some of the country's deepest problems, offering energy-efficient living, mechanisms for integrating immigrants, economies of scale for health programs and more. At the same time, metropolitan America faces tremendous problems: a $35 billion to $64 billion tab over the next 20 years just to preserve the current mass transit system, massive municipal pension obligations and in some cases stunning population losses, persistent foreclosure crises and dangerously high unemployment. The potential in America's cities, and the risks they face, matter beyond their borders. "Nations do well when their cities do well," says Hank Savitch, an urban-policy expert at the University of Louisville. "Cities are capital-intensive, labor-intensive territories that promote and catapult nations economically."

But don't expect America's cities—their problems or their potential—to be on the radar this campaign season. The 2012 race, like almost every prior one, will be about something else.

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In 1988, The New York Times' Sam Roberts wrote about the neglect of urban issues during the Michael Dukakis–George H.W. Bush presidential race, offering that their treatment was best described by an editorial cartoon he'd seen. "Sir, do you have an urban agenda?" the cartoon had a reporter asking a candidate. "Four panels of the cartoon follow, in which the candidate remains mute," Roberts wrote. "Finally, the reporter asks, ‘Can you be more specific?' " Two decades later, the Times editorial board detected a similar failing in the early stages of the '08 race. "The cities have been the hardest hit as federal policies have failed or gone missing in education, housing, health care, jobs, transportation and environment, to name a few," the Times opined, "yet urban issues have gotten scant attention in this campaign."

This near silence reflects two political realities. The first is that Democrats, not Republicans, win cities: Obama bested Republican nominee John McCain by 2-to-1 margins in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York (all loyal "blue" states) but also in St. Louis, New Orleans and Jackson, Miss.—cities he dominated in states he lost. Neither party has much incentive to go after urban voters; Democrats can usually count on them, and Republicans can basically count them out.