-- Fighting to recapture the magic of his history-making 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama on Saturday laid out his fullest-yet case for reelection, pleading with struggling Americans to "keep believing in me" and hitting out at presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
"If people ask you what this campaign is about, you tell them 'it's still about hope.' You tell them 'it's still about change,'" he told a cheering mass of supporters at Ohio State University in Columbus, six months and one day before the election. "I still believe in you. And I'm asking you to keep believing in me."
Obama, his hopes for a second term weighed down by the stubbornly sluggish economic recovery, worked to convince Americans to view the vote not as a referendum on his record but as a choice between two very different candidates. He painted himself as the champion of the middle class and Romney as eager to "rubber stamp" House Republicans' goal "that we go right back to the policies that created this mess."
"We want businesses to succeed, we want entrepreneurs and investors rewarded when they take risks, when they create jobs and grow our economy. But the true measure of our prosperity is more than just a running tally of every balance sheet and quarterly profit report. I don't care how many ways you try to explain it: Corporations aren't people. People are people," Obama said, mocking a legally accurate but politically problematic comment from Romney early in the campaign.
He also referred to Romney's opposition to the automobile bailout, citing his "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" op-ed, a potentially shrewd move in Ohio, a major auto-parts manufacturing state that has benefited from the rescue of the industry. And he highlighted Romney's warning that setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq was "tragic."
The embattled Democratic incumbent also laid out his answer to the question Ronald Reagan posed to devastating effect in the 1980 election: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
"The real question, the question that will actually make a difference in your life, in the lives of your children, is not just about how we're doing today. It's about how we'll be doing tomorrow," Obama said. "Will we be better off if more Americans get a better eduation? That's the question. Will be be better off if we depend less on forign oil and more on our own ingenuity?That's the question. Will we be better off if we start doing some nation building right here at home? That's the question. Will we be better off if we bring down our deficit without gutting the very things we need to grow?"
(A Republican official quickly noted that Obama, at a 2008 rally in Florida, had told voters: "The question in this election is not 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' We know the answer to that. The real question is, 'Will this country be better off four years from now?'")
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus hit back after the president's speech: "Three and a half years after running on hope and change, Barack Obama kicked off his campaign with more divisive rhetoric and showed us he really is running on hype and blame."
"Obama talks a lot about moving forward but has he forgotten he's been president for the past three years?" Priebus said in a statement. "He failed to change Washington as he promised and unlike 2008, he will have to answer for his record. Barack Obama is right, American's aren't satisfied and that's why we can't afford a second term."
The president routinely tells Democratic audiences that he knows it will be difficult to recapture the energy that powered him to the White House. He got a reminder of that struggle in Columbus: His rally drew 14,000 people to an arena that holds 18,300. And before he spoke, the Ohio State University newspaper The Lantern tweeted that ushers were asking people at the rally to move "in order for seats to look full for TV."
The Obama campaign billed the event as the president's first rally, but he has spent months criss-crossing the country scooping up reelection dollars and giving speeches to crowds of supporters. And Republicans have complained that he has been campaigning in all but name at "official" events characterized by highly charged political rhetoric.
After Ohio, Obama was on his way to Virginia. Both states are crucial battlegrounds in November: No Republican has reached the White House without carrying the Buckeye State. Ohio's unemployment rate of 7.5 percent in March sits below the national rate of 8.1 percent. Yet Obama and Romney are statistically tied, according to a recent poll by Quinnipiac University. In Virginia, Obama enjoys a comfortable seven-point lead, according to a Washington Post poll. Obama's 2008 victory in Virginia was the first by a Democratic presidential candidate since the 1960s.
First Lady Michelle Obama introduced the president, calling him the standard-bearer for the "fundamental promise" that hard work yields a better life and praising him for tackling "the impossible choices" a president must make.
"Barack cannot this alone," she said. "Barack needs your help."
Obama's official campaign web site live-streamed the rally, which was also promoted on his twitter feed. One introductory online video showed former Republican vice presidential Sarah Palin criticizing Obama, and recalled a Fox New Channel anchor's description of a fist bump between the president and the first lady as "a terrorist fist jab."
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