With the general election match-up now in focus, President Obama's campaign is kicking into a higher gear, announcing the first two public rallies of year that will feature both the president and first lady Michelle Obama.
The presidential couple will appear in Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Va., on Saturday, May 5, when they will "outline the choice the American people will make in November," campaign officials said tonight.
"The choice won't just be between two people or two parties, it's a choice between two distinct records and two distinct visions for the country," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters on a conference call.
"Mitt Romney wants to go back to the future," he said. "He thinks our economy will grow by returning to the same policies that made it shrink."
Senior Obama strategist David Axelrod said the election debate has reached an "inflection point" and that Democrats will ramp up attacks on Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts and as a businessman and co-founder of Bain Capital.
"When you look at his career in business," Axelrod said, "it was not about job creation, it was about wealth creation."
"This is not going to be a one-way discussion," he added. "We are proud of the president's record and what he's done."
The aides said Obama's public rallies - in two "critical states" - mark a gradual step forward in their 2012 battle plan while allowing the president a chance to directly respond to what they described as Romney's "dishonest, negative campaign."
"The monologue is over," Messina said of the presumptive GOP nominee and his attacks on the president during the primary. "Now he has to put his record and agenda up against the president's, and we look forward to the debate."
"We think it's the right time for us. We've been planning on this for awhile and feel like it's the right time to engage," he said.
Axelrod said the president's message at the campaign events would not differ significantly from the pitch for economic fairness and equal opportunity that he has been talking about at official events around the country. Obama's strength is "consistency," he said.
"We're not the candidate who reinvents himself from week to week. This is a candidate who has a mission and is going to see it through - and that is to rebuild an economy in which the middle class is thriving," said Axelrod.
Messina said the first lady's role would be to "speak to the president's character and steady hand in times of crisis. And she can tell stories about what his accomplishments have meant to millions of Americans."
As for whether the May 5 events mean Obama is flipping the switch on campaign mode, Messina said it would continue to be a gradual transition that balances the demands of the presidency.
"This will be a ramp up, not a zero-to-60 moment," he said. "So, we won't start doing a bunch of these rallies. These will be the first two, and we'll have more to come."
Republicans responded to the announcement of Obama's first public rallies by accusing the president of laying the groundwork for a negative and divisive campaign.
"At President Obama's kickoff events next weekend you can expect to hear a lot of divisive rhetoric and finger-pointing, but not much about his record of ballooning debt, lost jobs and rising gas prices," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said she isn't surprised by the planned offensive against her boss.
"Unfortunately, voters will have to expect that the Obama campaign will be running a campaign based on personal attacks to divert, distract and distort," she said in a statement. "Like Mitt Romney said last night, 'It's still the economy, and we're not stupid.'"