President Barack Obama cast Mitt Romney on Thursday as an out-of-touch challenger for the White House, while the Republican countered that the U.S. economy "is bumping along the bottom" under the current administration.
The two men crisscrossed hotly contested Florida, their travel plans nearly overlapping in Miami. Florida is one of a handful of battleground states with large Hispanic populations that are expected to decide the close race for the White House. The president is not chosen by a nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests, making these states especially important.
Romney worked to move past the furor over a video showing him telling donors last May that nearly half of Americans see themselves as victims entitled to government handouts, and that as a candidate, his job wasn't to worry about them.
But Obama made his most extensive comments to date on the subject, seizing the chance to make the most of a controversy that has knocked his rival off stride.
"When you express an attitude that half the country considers itself victims, that somehow they want to be dependent on government, my thinking is maybe you haven't gotten around a lot," the president said at a town hall-style forum aired by the Spanish-language television network Univision.
Seeking to change the subject, Romney disclosed plans for a three-day bus tour early next week through Ohio — another important battleground — with running mate Paul Ryan and sought to return the campaign focus to the economic issues that have dominated the race all year.
Less than seven weeks before Election Day, polls make the race a close one, likely to be settled in eight or so swing states where neither man has a solid edge. Obama has gained ground in polls in some of those states since the completion of the Democratic National Convention two weeks ago, while Romney has struggled with controversies of his own making that have left Republicans frustrated at his performance as a candidate.
At a fundraiser in Sarasota, Romney looked ahead to his televised debates with Obama this fall.
"He's a very eloquent speaker, and so I'm sure in the debates, as last time ... he'll be very eloquent in describing his vision," the Republican said. "But he can't win by his words, because his record speaks so loudly in our ears. What he has done in the last four years is establish an economy that's bumping along the bottom."
Romney's attempt to steer the debate back to the sluggish economy came amid fresh signs of weakness in the nation's job market.
The Labor Department said the number of Americans seeking unemployment fell only slightly last week, to a seasonally adjusted level of 382,000, suggesting that businesses remain reluctant to add to their payrolls. The four-week average rose for the fifth straight week to the highest level in nearly three months.
After more than two days of struggle, Romney seemed eager to leave the video controversy behind as he appeared at the Univision forum Wednesday night. "'My campaign is about the 100 percent in America," he said firmly.
The day's campaign events showed the complexities of campaigning in Florida, a state that is home to large populations of senior citizens and of Hispanics.
Romney released a new television commercial designed to appeal to both groups.
It features Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, plugging the Republicans' plan to overhaul Medicare, the U.S. government health care program that primarily benefits the elderly. The program is flashpoint in the campaign that Obama says could threaten future beneficiaries with high out-of-pocket costs.
Saying his mother is 81, Rubio declares in the ad: "We can save Medicare without changing hers, but only if younger Americans accept that our Medicare will be different than our parents', when we retire in 30 years.
"But after all they did for us, isn't that the least we can do?"
Obama faced tough questions about immigration during his Univision appearance.
He said the lack of immigration reform legislation was his biggest failure as president and "not for a lack of trying or desire." He said he couldn't find a single Republican to help work on the legislation. "I'm happy to take responsibility for being naive here," the president said when pressed to admit he broke his promise.
Univision anchor Jorge Ramos interjected: "You promised us, and a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn't keep that promise."
Obama drew praise from Hispanic groups earlier in the year when he announced a policy shift that will allow some immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children to avoid deportation.
Romney has been critical of the change, but has declined to say if he would reverse it if he wins the White House.