The crucial state of Ohio was getting a full dose of presidential politics Thursday, with President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney trying to sell voters on their visions of how to fix the battered U.S. economy.
The campaign appearances mark the first time Obama and Romney have taken their message to the same state on the same day. Ohio is key to the election hopes of both candidates. With less than five months remaining until the Nov. 6 election, they are virtually tied in the polls.
New reports on the economy Thursday brought little optimism, with weekly applications for unemployment aid inching up and a broad measure of trade, the U.S. current account trade deficit, widening in the first three months of the year for the largest imbalance since late 2008.
Under the U.S. election system, presidents are chosen in state-by-state contests. No Republican has won the presidency without carrying heavily populated Ohio, which, unlike most other states, is neither predictably Republican nor Democratic. Obama won Ohio by 5 percentage points in 2008, but the Republicans stormed back two years later with sweeping victories in the state gubernatorial and congressional races.
Thursday's campaign appearances are scheduled in different cities but just minutes apart.
Obama's visit, his 22nd to Ohio as president, comes as once-confident Democrats are increasingly worried he could lose the November election. It follows a difficult two weeks for the president, including a dismal report on the nation's unemployment outlook, a Democratic defeat in a rare governor recall election in Wisconsin and an impressive fundraising month for Romney and Republicans, who surged ahead of Obama and the Democrats for the first time.
Romney again assailed Obama's economic record Wednesday, telling business leaders in Washington that he expects the president to use "cheap" words during Thursday's economic speech in Cleveland. Obama's speech is scheduled to start just minutes before a Romney campaign stop in Cincinnati.
"You're going to see him change course when he speaks tomorrow, where he will acknowledge that it isn't going so well," said Romney, who is planning a five-day bus tour through Ohio. "My own view is that he will speak eloquently, but that words are cheap."
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who says his personal success as a businessman is evidence he can shepherd the U.S. economy, said Obama's record over the last three and a half years "is the most anti-investment, anti-business, anti-jobs series of policies" in modern American history.
"He is not responsible for whatever improvement we might be seeing. Instead, he's responsible for the fact that it's taken so long to see this recovery," he said.
The Obama campaign countered that Romney's speech was filled with "dishonest claim after dishonest claim" about the president's record, and that the Republican was trying to deflect attention from his own poor economic record as Massachusetts governor.
The proof of Ohio's status as a campaign battleground is in the spending. Last week, the two campaigns and their allies poured more money into TV ads in Ohio — about $1.3 million each — than in any other state, including Florida. In the most recent weekly measure of campaign broadcast spending, Romney's forces nearly matched Obama's dollar for dollar in Ohio.
Ohio Democrats say they will force Romney to explain his 2008-2009 opposition to a federal bailout of U.S. auto industry, which Obama now calls a huge success. The revitalized car industry has been crucial to Ohio'ssteady job growth in the industrial Midwest.