Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — President Barack Obama pledged to create many more jobs and "make the middle class secure again" in a campaign-closing appeal on Thursday — more than five weeks before Election Day — to voters already casting ballots in large numbers.
Republican Mitt Romney, focusing on threats beyond American shores, accused the commander in chief of backing dangerous cuts in defense spending.
"The idea of cutting our military is unthinkable and devastating. And when I become president we will not," declared the challenger, struggling to reverse a slide in opinion polls.
Romney and Obama campaigned a few hundred miles apart in Virginia, 40 days before their long race ends. They'll be in much closer quarters next Wednesday in Denver — for the first of three presidential debates on the campaign calendar and perhaps the challenger's best remaining chance to change the trajectory of the campaign.
In a race where the economy is the dominant issue, there was a fresh sign of national weakness as the Commerce Department lowered its earlier estimate of tepid growth last spring. Romney and his allies seized on the news as evidence that Obama's policies aren't working.
There was good news for the president in the form of a survey by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation suggesting he has gained ground among older voters after a month-long ad war over Republican plans for Medicare.
The pace also was quickening in the struggle for control of the U.S. Senate.
Prominent Republican conservatives pledged financial and political support for Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri. That complicated Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill's bid for re-election. But it also left Romney, running mate Paul Ryan and the rest of the GOP hierarchy in an awkward position after they tried unsuccessfully to push Akin off the ballot in the wake of his controversial comments about rape.
Farther west, in Arizona, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake unleashed an ad calling Democratic rival Richard Carmona "Barack Obama's rubberstamp." It was not meant as a compliment in a state seemingly headed Romney's way, a response for sure to Democratic claims that the Senate contest was unexpectedly close.
In the presidential race, early voting has already begun in Virginia as well as South Dakota, Idaho and Vermont. It began during the day in Wyoming as well as in Iowa, like Virginia one of the most highly contested states. Early voters had formed a line a half block long in Des Moines before the elections office opened at 8 a.m.
Campaigning in Virginia Beach, Obama said, "It's time for a new economic patriotism, an economic patriotism rooted in the belief that growing our economy begins with a strong and thriving middle class." It was a line straight from the two-minute television commercial his campaign released overnight.
He said that if re-elected he would back policies to create a million new manufacturing jobs, help businesses double exports and give tax breaks to companies that "invest in America, not ship jobs overseas." He pledged to cut oil imports in half while doubling the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks, make sure there are 100,000 new teachers trained in math and science, cut the growth of college tuition in half and expand student aid "so more Americans can afford it."
He also touted a "balanced plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion," but he included $1 trillion in reductions that already have taken place, and he took credit for saving half of the funds budgeted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that no longer are needed.
Obama also said he would "ask the wealthy to pay a little more," a reference to the tax increase he favors on incomes over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. It is perhaps his most fundamental disagreement on policy with Romney, who wants to extend expiring tax cuts at all levels, including the highest.
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