Obama shifts to campaign mode, tears into Romney
COLUMBUS, Ohio—President Barack Obama launched a new phase of his re-election campaign on Saturday by branding Republican challenger Mitt Romney as an eager rubber stamp for extremist Republicans in Congress and offering himself as a hard-charging champion of an embattled middle class.
In the first formal rallies of his bid for a second term, Obama acknowledged the US economy has struggled to recover from a painfully deep recession but declared, “We’ve been through too much to turn back now.”
Obama’s toughly worded speech at a noisy basketball arena at Ohio State University previewed a similar event later Saturday at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Both states are shaping up as among the most hotly contested battlegrounds that could decide the 2012 race.
The campus events were billed as the official kickoff of Obama’s re-election bid, even though he’s been solidly engaged in his campaign and over a year ago filed the necessary paperwork to run again.
Obama has headlined dozens of fundraisers around the country as his campaign tries to build a solid money advantage over Romney. In his official White House travels, often to the most contested states, the president has pitched policy positions that fit neatly into the campaign’s central theme of economic fairness. They range from a millionaires’ tax to freezing student loan interest rates.
Official campaign rallies can free Obama up to take more direct aim at Romney. Until now, Obama has used Romney’s name sparingly, often choosing instead to cloak his criticisms of Romney in attacks against generic Republicans.
New job numbers on Friday highlighted the challenge Obama faces. Job growth slumped for a second straight month. The unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent in April, but largely because more people stopped looking for work and therefore were no longer deemed unemployed.
In the face of continued economic unease, Obama’s campus rallies were intended to recapture some of the youthful, hopeful energy of his 2008 campaign — and target a voting bloc, young people, that was crucial to his victory four years ago.
At Ohio State, Obama was introduced by first lady Michelle Obama, who called her husband an “awesome” president and someone who understands the struggles of average Americans.
The president said those struggles are central to his re-election bid.
“For the last few years, the Republicans who run this Congress have insisted that we go right back to the policies that created this mess,” Obama said, even though Democrats control the Senate. “But to borrow a line from our friend Bill Clinton, now, their agenda is on steroids.”
Obama listed more top-end tax cuts and cuts to education and theMedicare health care program for the elderly as among Republican priorities.
“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,” he said to jeers from the mostly young crowd. “We cannot give him that chance. Not now. Not with so much at stake.”
Obama said Romney seems to believe if wealthy Americans like him or big corporations get richer, the country will prosper. But he said bigger profits haven’t led to better jobs, and Romney “doesn’t seem to get that.”
Obama also taunted Romney’s primary season observation that “corporations are people, my friend.”
Said Obama: “I don’t care how many ways you try to explain it. Corporations aren’t people. People are people.”
Some Democrats saw Saturday’s events as a chance for Obama to put Republicans on notice that he plans to be an aggressor in the race.
“What we’ve seen too many times in the past is Democrats are way too meek in defining their opponents or defining themselves in an election,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. “This president is not going to let the Republicans define him.”
But campaign officials said Obama’s twin appearances were not a campaign re-launch.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser, said the president wasn’t a candidate who “reinvents himself week to week” — a jab at Romney’s sometimes shifting positions.
Republicans argue the Obama campaign is not aiming for consistency, but rather struggling to find a comprehensive vision for a second term.
“They have nothing positive to run,” said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee. “No successful incumbent, no impressive record and no thriving economy.”
Obama chose to hold the rallies Saturday in two pivotal states which Romney needs in his column if he hopes to unseat Obama in the November election.
Since 1944, Ohio has voted with the winner in every presidential election except one, in 1960. No Republican has won the White House without taking Ohio. In 2008, Obama reversed decades of Republican dominance in Virginia.
Since then, both Ohio and Virginia have swung back toward the Republicans in statewide elections.
The Romney campaign for the moment seems more focused on uniting a party that just experienced a bitter primary. His aides highlight the need to excite conservative activists, who will drive turnout on Election Day and handle the lion’s share of the less-glamorous tasks needed to run a national campaign.
The Romney campaign would like to broaden his appeal to the political center, while harnessing the anti-Obama intensity from his party’s right. It’s a tricky move, but Romney is trying to prove he won’t turn his back on his party’s most passionate voters who are wary of more moderate positions he held on health care reform, abortion and gay rights when he served as Massachusetts governor.
He’s devoting significant attention to skeptical conservatives who have supported his Republican rivals until recently. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gave up his bid last month, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made his departure official this past week. Romney on Friday met with Santorum, who has indicated he will endorse Romney.
“We’re moving quickly,” said Romney senior aide Peter Flaherty, who is leading the campaign’s conservative outreach. “We are going to work very hard to continue to work with conservatives, to work with the base, to keep them energized.”
At the same time, the Romney campaign is paying lots of attention to the conservative media. He and his wife met this past week with right-leaning bloggers, reporters and columnists for an off-the-record discussion on Capitol Hill. He has granted interviews recently to conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard, the blog “Hot Air,” National Review and Human Events magazine.
Romney will deliver a commencement address next week at Liberty University, the evangelical institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia. He will be the first Mormon to speak at a Liberty graduation.
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