COLUMBUS --"I still believe," President Obama told a crowd of some 14,000 Saturday as he officially launched his bid for re-election in Ohio, where many argue that the White House race again could be decided.
In two major rallies in two red-turned-blue states nearly 500 miles apart, on the campuses of Ohio State and Virginia Commonwealth universities, Mr. Obama sought to reignite the "Yes we can!" passion that helped him win election in 2008.
"If people ask you what this campaign is about, you tell them it's still about hope," Mr. Obama said. "Tell them it's still about change. Tell them it's still about ordinary people who believe in the face of great odds we can make a difference in the life of this country.
"Because I still believe, Ohio," he said. "I still believe that we are not as divided as our politics suggest. I still believe that we have more in common than the pundits tell us, that we're not Democrats or Republicans, but Americans first and foremost."
The rally at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus may have made his campaign official, but there's no doubt that the campaign has been on for months and that battleground Ohio is again in the cross-hairs. The President's visit to the state was his fifth this year.
Mr. Obama attempted to draw a line between his leadership abilities and those of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, whom he called a "rubber stamp" for the Republican policies that preceded him.
"Ohio, I tell you what: We cannot give him that chance," Mr. Obama said. "Not now, not with so much at stake. This is not just another election. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and we've been through too much to turn back now.
"We have come too far to abandon the change we fought for these past few years," said Mr. Obama, the sleeves of his blue open-collar shirt rolled up. "We have to move forward to the future we imagined in 2008, where everybody gets a fair shot, and everyone gets their share, and everyone plays by the same rules," he said during nearly identical speeches at the rallies in Ohio and Virginia.
"We can't afford to spend the next four years going backward. America doesn't need to refight the battle we just had over Wall Street reform and health-care reform," he said. "We're not going back there. We're going forward."
He acknowledged the pain that still exists more than three years into his presidency as many Americans continue to struggle to find work and are still under water on their home mortgages.
"Yes, there were setbacks," he said. "Yes, there were disappointments, but we didn't quit. We don't quit. Together we're fighting our way back."
Two years ago, when campaigning on the Ohio State campus for then-Gov. Ted Strickland, he drew some 35,000 people. There were a lot of empty seats Saturday in the Schottenstein, which seats 20,000.
He offered no regrets for the controversial economic stimulus package and health-care overhaul that GOP critics cite as failures or, in the case of the latter, unconstitutional. Mr. Obama argued that this election is about affordable college education, women's access to birth control and the option of abortion, and fairer taxation.
The rally came as the latest unemployment numbers gave Mr. Obama little to crow about. The nation's unemployment rate has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 percent, but the rate at which the economy has been adding jobs again slowed and the work force has shrunk as people continued to drop out of the labor market.
The good news for Mr. Obama is that Ohio's 7.5 percent unemployment is below the national average. He has taken at least partial credit for that by pointing to the strong comeback of the auto industry that has added manufacturing capacity, shifts, and employees following the taxpayer-fueled bailout of Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors Co. that he championed.
"Today our auto industry is back on top of the world," Mr. Obama said. "Manufacturers started investing again, adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. Business got back to basics. Exports surged. Over 4 million jobs were created in the last four years, more than 1 million of those in the last six months alone. Are we satisfied? Of course not.
"This crisis took years to develop, and the economy is still facing headwinds, and it will take persistent effort, yours and mine, for America to fully recover," he said. "That's the truth. We all know it."
He attempted to turn the traditional election-year question -- "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" -- on its head.
"The question that will actually make a difference in your life and the lives of our children is not about how we're doing today but how we'll be doing tomorrow," he said. "When we look back four years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, won't we be better off if we have the courage to keep moving ahead? That's the question in this election."
Playing up what he considers to be one of his election-year strengths, Mr. Obama turned to foreign policy.
"For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq," Mr. Obama said. "Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to this country. Al-Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and by 2014 the war in Afghanistan will be over."
A Quinnipiac Poll last week showed that the fight for must-win Ohio is a statistical tie with Mr. Obama holding a slight 44-42 percent edge over Mr. Romney. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio, and no Democrat has done it since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Mr. Romney is to return to Ohio Monday, continuing his practice of small town-hall meetings that often focus on the economy. This one will occur at Stamco Industries Inc., a Cleveland metal-stamping company.
"This speech was a retread, a cut-and-paste job of President Obama's 2008 campaign rhetoric," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams, who was in the Ohio State crowd. "Unfortunately for him, this time around he has a record to defend, a record of exploding deficits, job losses, and fiscal mismanagement in Washington."
He dismissed Mr. Obama's suggestion that Mr. Romney would be a "rubber stamp" for what the President characterized as the tax cut, deficit building, war on credit-card policies under President George W. Bush that he said helped lead to the economic crisis.
Foes and fans
"Mitt Romney is the only candidate running in this race who is from outside Washington," Mr. Williams said. "He's been a businessman and an executive his entire life, somebody who's made his own decisions.
"This President has had three years in office, and he's failed to show any competent leadership for this country."
Mr. Strickland, however, argued that this election is about values and that Mr. Romney has the wrong ones.
"Mitt Romney chose to take his wealth and invest it in the Cayman Islands and a Swiss bank account," Mr. Strickland told the crowd. "He did not choose to invest in America. He chose to enrich himself by putting his resources somewhere else. This is going to be an election of values. Barack Obama has stood up for us."
Among those in the crowd was Claudia Sebree-Pressley, chief executive officer of Aunt Minnie's, which claims to be the only frozen food with an African-American woman, her mother, Minnie Sebree, on the box. The Toledo-headquartered company specializing in "Southern-style entrees" can be found in many Eastern and Southern state stores but doesn't have a presence yet in Ohio groceries.
Ms. Sebree-Pressley has volunteered for the Obama campaign and helped to organize two busloads from Toledo to attend the Schottenstein Center rally. She argued that Republicans don't have a monopoly on CEOs.
"It's not that [Mr. Obama] has done anything for me financially," she said. "I trust him. … I trust him with this country. I trust him with my kids. The atmosphere is so much better as far as business. I'm surviving. I'm not where I want to be, but I'm surviving. That's why so many of us will vote for him."
Julie Morris, 26, a school psychologist with Dublin City Schools near Columbus, was among those on the gym floor a few feet from Mr. Obama during the rally.
"The main thing I connect with from him is his belief that all people should have equal opportunity," she said. "That's the bottom line for me."
While polls suggest his base of support is less exuberant this time around, Ms. Morris said that isn't true for her, and she hasn't seen it among her friends.
"Things have been harder maybe than any of us had expected, but, in general, I think the optimism is still where it was," she said.
View in Virginia
In Virginia, some drove hours and then waited even longer to hear the President's rally cry.
Amanda Slade, 23, of Gloucester in southeast Virginia, said it was worth it.
"I came to show support. A lot of [Obama supporters] think he's going to win so they don't bother to get involved.
"Some of my friends are apathetic about it and I want to tell them 'Come on, get involved.' I did," said Ms. Slade, who attended a similar rally at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008. "I remembered the excitement and I wanted to be part of it again," she said. "Everyone was hoping we would have a black president and everyone was really motivated. I don't see that as much this time."
College students and other first-time voters helped propel Mr. Obama to the White House, and his campaign is counting on enduring support from that constituency to keep him there.
Tracie Mauriello of Block News Alliance contributed to this report.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.