RICHMOND – President Obama launched his re-election campaign in the battleground states of Virginia and Ohio on Saturday, highlighting progress the U.S. has made toward pulling itself out of an economic malaise under his leadership while blasting the presumptive nominee Mitt Romney as out of touch with the middle class.
Accompanied by his wife Michelle, the president delivered speeches before raucous audiences on the campuses of Ohio State University in Columbus and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
“I believe in you. I’m asking you to keep believing in me,” the president said to thunderous applause at Ohio State, where about 14,000 supporters gathered for his speech.
In his addresses in Ohio and Virginia, Obama mentioned Romney only a handful of times during his speeches. The president complimented Romney as a patriotic, successful American who had raised a wonderful family. Then he criticized his opponent for being too close to conservative House Republicans and suggested Romney’s career in business has left him out of touch with the lives of the American middle class.
“He doesn’t seem to understand that maximizing profits by whatever means necessary — whether through layoffs or outsourcing or tax avoidance or union-busting — might not always be good for the average American or for the American economy,” Obama said. “I tell you what. We can’t give him the chance. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class. And we’ve been through too much to turn back now.”
The start of the campaign may foreshadow the style, themes and challenges of the final six months until the November: hard-hitting, aimed at firing up existing supporters more than attracting new ones and focused on the handful of states that could go either way in the presidential election.
Romney’s spokeswoman Andrea Saul dismissed Obama’s assault on the former Massachusetts governor.
“No matter how many lofty campaign speeches President Obama gives, the fact remains that American families are struggling on his watch: to pay their bills, find a job and keep their homes ” Saul said. “While President Obama all but ignored his record over three and a half years in office, the American people won’t. ”
Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, blasted the speech as “more divisive rhetoric.”
“Obama talks a lot about moving forward but has he forgotten he’s been president for the past three years?” Priebus said. “He failed to change Washington as he promised and unlike 2008, he will have to answer for his record.”
“It’s telling that Obama had to spend so much time on the attack in his kick-off speech,” tweeted RNC research director Joe Pounder.
For his first official rallies, Obama chose two college campuses in urban areas of Ohio and Virginia where voter turnout will be crucial to his chances in November.
Columbus, the biggest city in Ohio, is a considered a key swing city in a key swing state. It has the youth vote – 57,000 students at Ohio State’s main campus alone – and a large black population, plus Republican-leaning voters nearby in the suburbs and rural areas.
Strong support in Richmond, the college town of Charlottesville, and the northern Virgnia suburbs of Washington, D.C. helped him in 2008 become first Democratic presidential candidate to win the Old Dominion since Lyndon Johnson took the commonwealth in 1964.
The president has been making the case for his reelection for months now, hammering at GOP lawmakers as obstructionists while his White House and campaign aides have attempted to paint Romney as both a flip-flopper and an extreme conservative. On Saturday, Obama took on Romney himself.
He jabbed Romney for supporting tax cuts that would benefit millionaires. And he suggested that Romney’s sounded tone deaf at times on the campaign trail–recalling the former governor responding to a woman in Iowa sharing the story of her financial strugles with an economic theory. When noting his foreign security accomplishments, Obama ticked off the differences between him and Romney on Afghanistan and Iraq policy.
“My opponent said it was “tragic” to end the war in Iraq. He said he won’t set a timeline for ending the war in Afghanistan,” Obama said. “I have, and I intend to keep it.”
Yet, even as he took some sharp cuts at Romney, Obama told supporters that this campaign, like his 2008 run, was about “hope” and “change.”
“If people ask you what this campaign is about, you tell them it’s still about hope,” Obama said. “You tell them it’s still about change. You tell them it’s still about ordinary people who believe that in the face of great odds, we can make a difference in the life of this country.”
It was hard to measure whether enthusiasm by core supporters has changed, but it’s an issue that’s on the mind of the Obama campaign. Obama himself cautioned his supporters that this election will be closer than 2008, and their support will be critical to determining his fate.
About 14,000 filed into the 18,300-seat Schottenstein Center, with the arena’s upper deck nearly empty. Student attendance at the rally was modest. Obama managed to fill the 8,000-seat Siegel Center at VCU to capacity.
“It’s not that his support is falling. It’s just that we’ve seen him before, many of us a bunch of times,” said Ohio State student Alison Forsyth, who attended a rally for the first time.
“People are worried about the economy and jobs,” said Jason Kinnamon, 39, a graphic designer who was seeing the president for the first time.
At the rally in Richmond, Danny Cotlow said that enthusiasm among core Obama supporters isn’t where it was in 2008, but he was confident that Obama will be reelected.
“Right now, it’s too early,” said Cotlow, 53, of Vienna, Va. “I think people are content.”