AMES, Iowa — Seizing on fresh evidence of economic sluggishness, Republican challenger Mitt Romney said Friday that President Barack Obama inherited a bad situation when he took office and then "made the problem worse." Obama looked ahead to the second term he's hoping to win.
Referring to the two top Republicans in Congress, the president said he was prepared to "wash John Boehner's car" or "walk Mitch McConnell's dog" if it would help complete an elusive deal to cut future deficits by trillions of dollars.
The two campaign rivals faced a common danger as the end of their race came into view: a large and dangerous storm threatening to barrel up the East Coast. Romney and Vice President Joe Biden each canceled planned weekend appearances in Virginia Beach, Va.
Romney was unsparing in his criticism of the man he hopes to unseat. "Despite all that he inherited, President Obama did not repair our economy, he did not save Medicare and Social Security, he did not tame the spending and borrowing, he did not reach across the aisle to bring us together," the former Massachusetts governor said.
"Four years ago, America voted for a post-partisan president, but they have seen the most political of presidents, and a Washington in gridlock because of it," he added.
The Republican challenger borrowed a theme from Obama's successful 2008 campaign, saying he and running mate Paul Ryan "can bring real change to this country." And he tweaked a line that former President Bill Clinton unveiled at this summer's Democratic National Convention, saying, "This is not the time to double-down on trickle-down government policies that have failed us."
Democrats delighted in pointing out that Romney spoke outside Kinzler Construction Services, which benefitted from more than $650,000 in stimulus funding from the 2009 package Obama that signed into law — and the Republican nominee often criticizes.
Romney campaigned in Iowa and Ohio as national polls showed a tight race. Though his aides claimed momentum, citing recent polls, Obama's team said the president led or was tied in each of the nine battleground states where the two sides have concentrated hundreds of millions of dollars in television commercials over the past five months.
Back in the White House after his long day and night and day of campaigning, Obama said he looked forward to trying to reach a deal with congressional Republicans on a sweeping budget deal if he wins re-election. Asked by radio show host Michael Smerconish if he would make the first move, the president replied, "I've said I'll do whatever's required to get this done.
"And I think the key that the American people want right now is for us to tackle some big challenges that we face in a commonsense, balanced, sensible way." That was a reference to one of his biggest differences with Romney — his insistence that tax cuts be allowed to expire at upper incomes on Dec. 31, as opposed to Romney's insistence that they be extended.
Obama has been under pressure from Romney in recent days to be more specific about a second-term agenda, and he released a 20-page pamphlet earlier this week. He also had interviews with MTV and several battleground-state television stations on his schedule for the day.
Later, in a live interview with MTV, he urged younger voters to cast their ballots, saying, "there's no excuse" not to.
"In 2000, Gore versus Bush, 537 votes changed the direction of history in a profound way and the same thing could happen," he said. That was Bush's contested margin of victory in Florida, the state that decided the election in a race that went to the Supreme Court.
The two sides disagreed — of course — on whether the political battlefield was expanding.
First Romney, then Obama, launched a modest run of television ads in Minnesota, where neither side had made a significant effort to date. The Republican's aides claimed an opportunity to make a state competitive that had long been counted as safe for Obama. The president's side disputed that, insisting that its ads were aimed at voters in Wisconsin, the battleground next door.
Obama's strategists appeared concerned about the impact of Romney's persistent attacks on the president's position on Israel, airing a commercial in the West Palm Beach, Fla., area, home to a large number of Jewish voters. "As long as I'm president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," the president vows in the ad, addressing fears that Tehran would attempt to obliterate the Jewish state.
The ad's subject matter, foreign policy, was a rarity in a campaign for the White House focused largely on the economy and jobs.
Romney vows to put his experience as a businessman to use to create 12 million jobs in four years in a country where unemployment only recently fell below 8 percent for the first time since Obama took office. The president claims progress during his term on fixing the economy, though conceding it hasn't been fast enough, and says Romney's policies would only make matters worse.
There was little indication that the economy was gathering much momentum, based on a Commerce Department report during the day, which said growth from July through September was slightly faster than a 2 percent annual rate. Growth so far this year is slightly less than in 2011, which was weaker than 2010. Officials said the current annual rate is too slow to bring a rapid boost in job creation.
Not all economy-related soundings were negative.
A prominent measure of consumer confidence, calculated by the University of Michigan, rose to its highest level since September 2007, three months before the nation's economy cratered and the credit system virtually shut down.
Romney's aides billed his remarks as a speech about the economy although it was more political than that.
"Four years ago, candidate Obama spoke to the scale of the times. Today, he shrinks from it, trying instead to distract our attention from the biggest issues to the smallest, from characters on Sesame Street and silly word games to misdirected personal attacks he knows are false," he said.
"And then, where are the jobs? Where are the 9 million more jobs that President Obama promised his stimulus would have created by now? They are in China, Mexico, Canada" and elsewhere, he said.
The Republican's statement that it was no time to "double down on trickle down government policies" was eerily like Clinton's criticism at the Democratic convention. "We simply cannot afford to give the reins of government to someone who will double down on trickle down," the former president said, referring to policies he said Republicans had tried in the past with poor results.
The Romney campaign moved swiftly to try to lay one controversy to rest.
Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu suggested in an interview on Thursday that retired Secretary of State Colin Powell had endorsed Obama because both are black. Sununu later issued a statement that said, "I do not doubt that it was based on anything but his support of the president's policies."
Associated Press writers Julie Pace. Michele Salcedo and Martin Crutsinger in Washington and Beth Fouhy in New York contributed to this story. Espo reported from Washington.