President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney gave economic speeches at almost the same time in Ohio today. But their arguments could not have been more different.
Set in one of the swing states that will decide the November election, the speeches laid out the stark contrast Americans face in November between the president's economic policies and those of his challenger.
Obama traveled to Ohio and spoke at a community college outside Cleveland to effectively hit a reset button on his re-election campaign following a stretch of bad economic news and messaging missteps that have shaken Democrats' confidence and caused some allies to sound the alarm.
At the outset, he admitted he misspoke last week when he said "the private sector is doing just fine" creating jobs. At the end he politely asked for supporters to "stand with me" for a second term.
"There will be no shortage of gaffes and controversies," he said of the months until November. "Recently I made my own contribution."
He warned that a President Romney would doom the middle class. He called it a "defining moment" in American history.
"From 2001 to 2008 we had the slowest job growth in half a century," Obama said, arguing that the economy has done worse under recent Republican presidents. He said economic policies that focused on deregulation led to Americans borrowing too much money and relying too much on credit cards.
"Why do we think they would work better this time? We can't afford to jeopardize our future by repeating the mistakes of the past," Obama said, hoping to tie Romney's policies to those of former President George W. Bush.
"In the fall of 2008 it all came tumbling down," said Obama, later adding that many economists say it should take 10 years from 2008 for the economy to fully recover. But he said the economy now is growing and has added more than 4 million private sector jobs during his presidency.
He told supporters the only way things get done in Washington is through the ballot box.
"The only thing that can break the stalemate is you," he said to voters. "Your vote will finally determine the path we take as a nation. Everything else is just noise, everything else is just a distraction."
It was, in short, an argument to voters that he should be able to continue his policies because they are working, albeit slowly. He focused on plans to invest heavily in education and alternative energy programs, and raising taxes on the wealthy.
Romney has said his focus would be on cutting government spending to ward off debilitating deficits and debt.
It's a case that Obama has been pushing for weeks in smaller campaign appearances with donors and grassroots volunteers. But he's now under pressure to articulate it more convincingly and broadly, as polls show a tightening race headed into the summer with many swing voters still making up their minds about the Republican nominee.
Romney spoke in Cincinnati, ending a speech to supporters just before Obama took the stage outside Cleveland. He argued that it is actually the president's policies that have kept the poor economy from rebounding.
"So as you look at the president's record, it is long on words and short on action that created jobs," said Romney, speaking at a metal manufacturer. "And again, talk is cheap. Action speaks loudly. Look what's happened across this country."
"If you think things are going swimmingly, if you think the President's right when he said the private sector is doing fine, well, then he's the guy to vote for," said Romney. "But when he said that, there was such an outpouring of response from the 23 million Americans out of work or underemployed that I think today he's not going to say it again."
Ohio Key to November
No candidate for president since 1960 has won an election without carrying Ohio. Obama captured the state by four points in 2008, 51 to 47 percent, over Sen. John McCain.
Polls show Obama is in a close race with Romney in Ohio, leading him 48 to 42 percent in an NBC/Marist poll from mid-May but neck and neck, 45 to 44 percent, in a Quinnipiac University poll in the state just a week earlier.
Some Democrats, pointing to recent focus groups and polling data, worried publicly this week that Obama's pitch on progress in the economy isn't resonating with voters in key states, leaving him politically vulnerable and at risk of appearing out of touch. There are also concerns in some circles that attacks on Romney's record in private equity and as governor are not sticking well enough.
White House and campaign officials insist that their game plan is working and will succeed over the long haul. They frequently note the president has high public opinion ratings on empathy with Americans who are struggling financially. And they say he has presented detailed legislative proposals that would immediately put more workers back on the job.
"The problem here isn't the president's campaign staff and message he's put together, it's the economy that he inherited and is working hard to fix," said former White House aide and senior Priorities USA strategist Bill Burton.
"Some of the brightest minds in politics work for President Obama. They won a historic election, guided through groundbreaking legislation, and are aware of the stiff political head winds that the president faces right now," Burton said. "I have no doubt they will endure more criticism, but that's just because that's what Democrats do. We complain -- loudly and frequently. I'd be worried if it weren't happening."
Obama to Discredit Romney
With chances slim that the nation's economic picture will improve dramatically by November, strategists say Obama must more forcefully convince voters that Romney is an unacceptable alternative in the Oval Office, regardless of their personal financial situations.
Still, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll found the president faces deep skepticism about his economic plans less than five months before election day. Fifty-four percent of swing-voting independents see Obama's economic plans negatively, with just 38 percent holding a positive view.
Romney also has a negative rating on his economic plans, but by a smaller margin -- 47 to 35 -- with more undecided voters. The dynamic affords Romney an opening to make his case and win support in the weeks ahead.
Overall, Americans respond negatively rather than positively to Obama's economic proposals by 50-43 percent, and to Romney's by 47-37 percent. The poll, conducted June 6-10, has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
"What can they say, what can he do? Congress won't pass anything that he puts out there; the House will barely consider it. They're not going to help Obama. They're delighted he's in the situation he's in," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, of Obama's economic plans.
White House allies and veterans of Democratic presidential campaigns insist there is no reason for panic and still plenty of time for Obama to make his case.
"If this was a baseball game, the Obama team would still be winning by a couple runs in the fifth inning," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network and member of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign team, citing electoral map and recent polling data in swing states. "And they may have not scored more runs in the fifth, but they're still winning the game."