WASHINGTON — Against an increasingly bitter campaign backdrop, President Barack Obama is seeking to shore up support for his re-election in Virginia, a state he won four years ago ending decades of domination by Republican presidential candidates.
For challenger Mitt Romney, the state now looms as a battleground crucial to his presidential hopes.
Obama will travel to the southeast and southwest corners of the state Friday, courting young and African-American voters in the Virginia Beach-Hampton area before turning to more conservative Roanoke, unwilling to cede votes to Romney. On Saturday, he will campaign in Richmond, a once-staunchly Republican region that he won in 2008.
Both campaigns acknowledge Virginia's new role as a fiercely contested state after years of being virtually overlooked in presidential politics. Obama won the state by a 53-46 margin over his 2008 rival, Sen. John McCain.
Obama's visit comes after a day of hostile exchanges between the campaigns over Romney's tenure at the private equity firm he founded in 1984. Documents filed by the company, Bain Capital, conflict with Romney's statements about when he gave up control of the firm. Both sides accused the other of being dishonest.
The documents, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, place Romney in charge of Bain from 1999 to 2001, a period in which it outsourced jobs and ran companies that fell into bankruptcy. Romney and his aides say he left Bain in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Olympics, and a Bain statement said Romney "remained the sole stockholder for a time while formal ownership was being documented and transferred to the group of partners who took over management of the firm in 1999."
Meanwhile, both Obama and former President Bill Clinton say Romney has invited close scrutiny of his business acumen because he's been selling himself as heavily qualified to improve the economy.
"I think it is entirely appropriate to look at that record and see whether, in fact ... his focus was creating jobs and he successfully did that," Obama said in an interview with CBS's Charlie Rose, portions of which were broadcast Friday on "CBS This Morning."
Obama said Romney's business past doesn't disqualify him in any way for office, but said, "I also think it's important if that's his main calling card, if his basic premise is that 'I'm Mr. Fix-it' on the economy.' "
Clinton, appearing Friday on NBC's "Today" show, said Romney's record in private business is fair game because the former Massachusetts governor has put such heavy emphasis on it. And he also said that Romney's refusal to release any full tax returns except for 2010 "struck me as a little odd."
Clinton said voters "ought to make up their own mind" whether they support someone who apparently sought to minimize his federal tax liability by parking large sums of money overseas.
Romney's tenure at Bain has been a major target for Obama, who has accused Romney of being an "outsourcing pioneer" who invested in companies that shipped jobs to China, India and elsewhere overseas. Romney claims he had no role in outsourcing U.S. jobs because much of that activity didn't happen until after 1999, when he says he had given up operational control at Bain.
The Romney campaign on Friday released a new television ad that depicts Obama as employing tactics he once decried. It features footage of Obama's 2008 convention speech declaring, "If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from."
A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center suggests Obama's attacks on Romney's background may be working. The poll, conducted June 28 through July 9, shows the president leading his Republican opponent 50 percent to 43 percent among registered voters. And Romney now lags behind Obama as the candidate better able to improve economic conditions. In the Pew Center's June poll, Romney held an eight-point edge on that question.
Obama's two-day visit to Virginia underscores his stepped-up attention to the shortlist of key states that will determine the outcome of the presidential contest.
Virginia, with 13 electoral votes, figures prominently in both the Obama and Romney strategies. But Obama has more options for an Election Day victory without Virginia than does Romney. Illustrating its importance, the state has seen the third heaviest television ad spending by the candidates and their allied groups, behind only Ohio and Florida.
The state is represented by two moderate Democratic senators. But since Obama won four years ago, Republicans have done well in state offices and a majority of the state's congressional seats are held by Republicans.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., said the state could well decide not only the presidential election but control of the Senate: Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen, both former governors, are in a tight race to succeed Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat.
Obama is helped by the state's more moderate and Democratic Washington suburbs, by an unemployment rate that is well below the national average and by a minority population that voted heavily in his favor last time. Nearly 20 percent of the state's population is African-American, and its Hispanic presence has grown sharply in the past decade, especially in the north.
Romney can benefit from what Farnsworth called a "highly organized and relatively cohesive Republican Party in Virginia that is very capable of winning elections."
Obama could also gain from backlash over a controversial state law signed earlier this year by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell that requires Virginia women to have an ultrasound test before an abortion.
What's more, former Republican Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia is seeking to get on the Virginia ballot as the presidential candidate of the Constitution Party. If successful, he could draw precious votes away from Romney — and Obama would not need to break 50 percent of the vote to win.
While touring the state, Obama will reiterate his call for extending Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, insisting that households earning more than $250,000 revert to paying the higher rates they faced under President Bill Clinton. That stance puts him at odds with Kaine, who has called for retaining the Bush tax cuts for households earning less than $500,000. Obama's position is also opposed by Webb, who has rejected calls for any tax increase.
Despite its relatively low unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, the state relies heavily on military contracts that could suffer significantly under automatic spending cuts authorized by Congress and signed by the president last year. The Hampton Roads area that Obama is visiting Friday is home to a large military presence — the world's largest naval base is there — and its economy is heavily dependent on defense spending.
Campaigning Thursday in Virginia on behalf of Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told veterans in Virginia Beach that Obama would destroy the region's job base through defense spending cuts if he's re-elected.
"He has your region of the country right in his crosshairs," Giuliani said at a rally at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. "I mean he can do more damage to you than he does to most of the rest of America if we should make the mistake of re-electing him because the cuts he has in mind for our military are devastating."
The proposed cuts in defense spending were designed to be so large that they would force Congress to adopt other means of reducing the deficit. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned against the military spending cuts, and Obama has instead called for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday blamed the deficit stalemate on Republicans for opposing increases in revenue.
"The across-the-board cuts were objectionable and onerous to both sides for a reason," he said. "That's why Congress has to act."
Associated Press writer Jack Gillum contributed to this report.