WASHINGTON — It's the kind of trip President Barack Obama relishes — one that plays to his natural political abilities by taking him outside of Washington to mix it up with Americans in small towns and casual settings.
Obama embarks Thursday on his first bus tour of the 2012 campaign as he seeks to pointedly stir up more questions about rival Mitt Romney's business record and subtly contrast himself with a Republican opponent who has struggled to connect with voters.
Dubbed the "Betting on America" tour, the two-day swing will take him through several northern Ohio communities that were critical to his 2008 win in the state and then to Pennsylvania for an event in Pittsburgh. Obama won both states four years ago but Romney and Republicans are competing hard to win them. The president will campaign in the both states as the nation's latest monthly job-creation assessment is released. Each state had an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent in May, below the national average of 8.2 percent.
Four months before the election, polls show Obama slightly leading Romney nationally and in several states that are critical in the hunt to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Nov. 6 election. The race is close despite a topsy-turvy June that included the Supreme Court's decision to uphold Obama's health care law and its split decision on Arizona's 2010 immigration law.
The president's trip kicks off a new phase of his re-election campaign as he ratchets up his retail campaigning this summer before the September convention in Charlotte, N.C. Underscoring the stakes, Obama is forgoing his traditional summer vacation to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., to focus on the campaign, though he spent a long weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat.
Romney, in turn, was spending the entire week relaxing with his family at his lakeside estate in Wolfeboro, N.H., where he's been seen taking his grandchildren for ice cream, jet skiing with his wife and playing volleyball with his five sons. It's a personal side of him the public has rarely seen during two primary campaigns in which he sometimes came off as awkward and forced, making clear that retail campaigning is not his strong suit.
Obama, conversely, is a charismatic campaigner who tends to easily connect with his audiences and draw energy from voters in diverse venues, from big rallies to roadside diners.
The president's bus tour follows a six-state bus trip by Romney through the Midwest last month that included stops in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Recent polls by Quinnipiac University found that Obama held a 9-percentage-point lead over Romney in Ohio, and a 6-point lead in Pennsylvania. No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio, making it a firewall for Obama. Pennsylvania also gives the Democratic president a large 900,000-vote registration advantage over Republicans.
Both sides are competing hard in the states. The president's campaign has spent nearly $16 million in television advertising in Ohio through late June while the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action has spent about $2.7 million, according to officials who track ad buys. Romney's campaign has spent about $5 million but a series of GOP-leaning outside groups have spent another $8 million, helping the Republican blunt Obama's message.
The president's itinerary takes him across the northern, manufacturing belt of Ohio that has felt the recession's sting perhaps more acutely than other parts of the state. It includes stops at a museum complex in Maumee that gives visitors a sense of life in the early 19th century, an ice cream social in a park in Sandusky and an event at a park in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland. Friday's schedule includes a stop at an elementary school in Poland, Ohio, near Youngstown, followed by a speech at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
The region — packed with white, working-class voters — will serve as a backdrop for Obama as he works to undercut Romney's key rationale for his candidacy, his nearly three decades in the private sector. Obama's campaign and allied groups have spent weeks raising questions about Romney's time at the head of a private equity firm. The Democrats have jumped on reports that Romney's Bain Capital invested in companies that shifted jobs overseas to cut costs.
Earlier this week, Obama's campaign released a new TV ad, airing in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states, that says: "Mitt Romney's companies were pioneers in outsourcing U.S. jobs to low-wage countries. He supports tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. President Obama believes in insourcing." The ad also highlights Obama's decision to rescue U.S. automakers General Motors and Chrysler. Both companies have a large manufacturing footprint in Ohio.
Former Gov. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, previewed the president's expected critique in a conference call organized by Obama's campaign, saying: "Romney literally made a fortune investing in companies that were pioneers in sending jobs to countries like China and India. Romney didn't bet on the American worker, he bet against them."
Romney's team counters that Obama has presided over a series of broken promises on unemployment, the economy and the federal deficit.
"No one should bet against America. But we certainly shouldn't double-down on Barack Obama," said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a top Romney surrogate. "We tried that and it ended up in a busted hand."
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The bus tour will coincide with Friday's release of the June jobs report. The May report showed unemployment had ticked up to 8.2 percent while the economy created 69,000 jobs, raising concerns among Obama's team about the potential for the economy to slow down. Earlier this week, economists reported that U.S. manufacturing shrank in June for the first time in nearly three years, adding to the questions about the economy.
Another bad report could undermine Obama's argument that the economy has shown signs of improvement and can rebound more fully if Republicans in Congress implement some of his ideas on job creation. An Associated Press-GfK poll released last month found that more than half of those surveyed, 52 percent, disapproved of his handling of unemployment, compared with 45 percent who approved.