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President Barack Obama began his re- election bid criticizing Mitt Romney by name, assailing the Republican presidential candidate’s economic policies and portraying himself as the protector of the middle class.
At rallies in the swing states of Ohio and Virginia that officially marked the start of his campaign, Democrat Obama said Romney would be a “rubber stamp” for congressional Republicans who want to gut education, pare Medicare and rewind economic and regulatory policies to those in place before the worst recession in generations.
Romney and the Republicans “think the same bad ideas will lead to a different result,” Obama told a crowd of supporters in Richmond. “I’m here to say that we were there, we remember, and we are not going back. We are moving this country forward.”
In the back-to-back speeches, Obama emphasized the populist economic themes he first outlined in a speech last December in Osawatomie, Kansas. The economy will be the dominant issue in the November election and Obama is seeking to make the case that while the recovery has been uneven, the U.S. is making progress.
Obama addressed supporters a day after the Labor Department reported U.S. employers added fewer workers than forecast in April. While the jobless rate fell to 8.1 percent, it was largely because people left the labor force.
The political impact of economic data over the next six months will be heightened as voters begin paying closer attention to the presidential race and the candidates seek to sharpen the focus on their prescriptions to revive growth.
“There have been disappointments, but we didn’t quit,” Obama, 50, said. “Together, we are fighting our way back.”
Both campaigns are preparing for a close election. The most recent Gallup daily tracking poll, completed May 4, shows the race essentially tied, with Obama getting support from 46 percent of those polled and Romney getting 45 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Romney, 65, a former Massachusetts governor, doesn’t have any scheduled public appearances this weekend. He will follow the president in both states this week, holding a town hall meeting May 7 in Cleveland and delivering the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, on May 12.
Romney’s spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said in response to Obama’s speeches that Americans are struggling to find jobs and pay their bills because of the president’s policies.
“While President Obama all but ignored his record over three and a half years in office, the American people won’t,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
Yesterday’s events were billed as Obama’s formal entry into campaign mode even though he has been speaking at fundraisers and giving addresses on policies that fit within his re-election message. Unlike presidential policy speeches, yesterday’s rallies featured campaign signs, videos and electronic message boards that told supporters how to get involved with the campaign.
First lady Michelle Obama introduced her husband at both rallies, recounting how she grew up in a working class family that struggled to send her to college and that the president was raised by a single mother.
“We’re here because of the values we believe it,” she said in Columbus.
She and Obama both urged the audience to register to vote and get involved in the campaign.
Obama said when people ask about the re-election campaign, “You tell them it’s still about hope, it’s still about change.”
Also unlike official presidential speeches, Obama took direct aim at his presumed November opponent.
He described Romney as a patriotic American who has been a successful businessman and the governor of Massachusetts.
“But I think he has drawn the wrong lessons from those experiences,” Obama said. “He sincerely believes that if CEOs and wealthy investors like him make money the rest of us will automatically prosper as well.”
In a dig at Romney for a comment the Republican made last year while campaigning in Iowa, Obama said, “corporations aren’t people, people are people.”
Obama sought to tie Romney to Republicans in Congress, who polls show are viewed unfavorably by Americans, and the policies of former Republican President George W. Bush, which he said led to the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
Congressional Republicans “have insisted that we go right back to the policies that created this mess,” Obama said in Ohio. “After a long and spirited primary, Republicans in Congress have found a nominee for president who has promised to rubber stamp this agenda if he gets a chance.”
Obama won Ohio and Virginia in 2008, and he made his fourth visit of the year to each state yesterday. Obama’s 2008 victory in Virginia, with 52.6 percent of the vote, was the first by a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The state has 13 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House.
Ohio, which has 18 electoral votes, has been a bellwether in presidential politics and no Republican has been elected president without a victory there. Obama won the state four years ago with 51.3 percent of the vote.
Both states have jobless rates below the national average. Ohio’s jobless rate in March was 7.5 percent, from a high of 10.6 percent in January 2010. It was 8.6 percent when Obama took office. Virginia has also seen an improving jobs picture, with the unemployment rate at 5.6 percent from a high of 7.3 percent in January 2010.
Romney has closed in on Obama in Ohio. Obama led Romney by 2 percentage points in the state, 44 percent to 42 percent, in an April 25 to May 1 poll by Quinnipiac University found. That is within the poll’s 2.9 percentage point margin of error. A Quinnipiac poll in March showed Obama led Romney by 6 points there.
Obama continues to have an advantage over Romney in Virginia. A Washington Post poll found Obama leading in the state with support from 51 percent of registered voters, compared with 44 percent for Romney. Obama led Romney by wide margins among black voters, women and young people, the Post poll showed.
The survey was conducted April 28 to May 2 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
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