SEMINOLE, Fla. – Eager to change the subject after a dismal jobs report, President Barack Obama tried to rekindle some of the enthusiasm of his 2008 campaign Saturday with a bus tour through a must-win swath of Florida, urging supporters not to “buy into the cynicism that somehow the change we fought for isn’t possible.” Republican candidate Mitt Romney faulted his own party in Congress and Obama for exposing the armed forces to huge spending cuts.
Obama, speaking to a crowd of 11,000 at the Seminole campus of St. Petersburg College, gave Floridians a populist plea not to “turn away now.”
“If you give up the idea that your voice can make a difference,” Obama said, “then other folks are going to fill the void: the lobbyists, the special interests, the people who are writing $10 million checks, the folks who are trying to keep people from voting” and more.
Campaigning in a state where the 8.8 percent jobless rate tops the national average, the president made no mention of Friday’s government report showing a weak employment outlook for the nation. But he urged people to help him “finish what we started,” and he put creating more jobs at the top of his to-do list.
The president called on people to rally behind “real, achievable goals that will lead to new jobs and more opportunity.”
Romney, campaigning in Virginia’s military-dependent tidewater area, was determined to keep the spotlight on the country’s weak jobs outlook, laid out in the latest Labor Department report on unemployment.
It was the first topic he raised in an appearance before a flag-waving audience of 4,000 in a hangar at the private Military Aviation Museum, vintage aircraft on display around him.
“This is not the kind of news that the American people are hoping for and deserve,” he said. Then he projected forward to a Romney presidency to add: “I’m here to tell you that things are about to get a lot better.”
Speaking in the Navy town of Virginia Beach, where many jobs are tied to defense, Romney criticized the president both for past cuts to military spending and “unthinkable” potential reductions threatened under the so-called “sequestration.” That’s a series of automatic, across-the-board cuts that will take effect if Congress doesn’t reach a budget solution in the next few months.
Half of the cuts are set to come from the Pentagon under a deal negotiated between Obama and Republican leaders in Congress.
“I think it was a mistake for Republicans to go along with it,” Romney said in an interview taped for today’s broadcast of “Meet the Press” on NBC. On the stage, he’d only blamed the president for the defense cuts.
Obama has opposed the depth of the cuts but has said congressional Republicans need to adopt a plan that includes increases in revenue.
Romney called the potential cuts “unthinkable to Virginia, to our employment needs. But it’s also unthinkable to the ability and the commitment of America to maintain our liberty. ... If I’m president, we’ll get rid of the sequestration cuts and rebuild America’s military might.”
From Virginia Beach, Romney headed for NASCAR territory, prime ground for working-class white voters.
He planned to attend the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
Romney and Obama are deadlocked in Virginia, where the Democrat is strong in the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Romney does better in the south and rural areas.
In Florida, where the race also is extremely tight, the president’s two-day, 260-mile trip in a fortified, million-dollar bus is taking him though the center of the state along the politically important I-4 corridor that separates Democratic-leaning southern Florida from the Republican-leaning north. The center swath from Tampa and St. Petersburg through Orlando and on to the Atlantic coast is considered the state’s swing region.
It’s Obama’s third campaign bus tour since July after earlier road trips in Ohio and Iowa. The buscapades attract significant media attention in the states and allow Obama to engage with local voters in unscheduled stops in the small towns that he can’t reach by flying on Air Force One.
On Saturday, he stopped at a Cuban restaurant in West Tampa, where he mingled with customers, took pictures and ordered five “honey Cuban” sandwiches. Among those in the sandwich shop: Dan Gemmell, one of the undecided voters so coveted by both Obama and Romney.
Gemmell said he’s a Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008 and still thinks the president’s a “great guy.” But the retired Army major said he’s a Roman Catholic and has “trouble with some of his issues, the birth control and gay marriage thing.”
Obama is eager to connect with voters in the middle, and he enlisted Florida’s former Republican governor Charlie Crist in the cause. Crist, now an independent, spoke at the Democratic National Convention, and he introduced Obama in Seminole, telling the crowd that Obama was “working hard for the middle class,” for Florida and the nation.
Obama had a hug for Crist, and said his support shows “the values that we’re fighting for are not Democratic values or Republican values, they are American values.”
At Obama’s second rally of the day, before 3,000 people in Kissimmee, he had a ready answer to Romney’s complaints about defense cuts.
“As long as I’m commander in chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known,” he said. He said he would use some of the money that had been used fight wars for rebuilding schools and roads and bridges. There is actually no such leftover pot of money because the wars were fought primarily by borrowing.
Former President Bill Clinton will be campaigning for Obama in Florida this week.
The Obama campaign sent Vice President Joe Biden to Ohio, another electoral battleground, where he mocked the Republicans for belatedly “discovering” the middle class.
Speaking to a crowd in Zanesville, Biden reminded voters of Romney’s opposition to the president’s auto industry bailout and asked if Republicans truly believe that had Romney been president, “there would be today, 115,000 auto jobs in Ohio.”
“All you Buckeyes out there, do you really think that Ohio, since 2010, would have added 50,000 manufacturing jobs? I think these are fair questions.”
Later, Biden ducked in to the Dairy Queen in Nelsonville, where he mixed with customers and shared an ice cream cone “toast” to Nelsonville with his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.
Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, was dispatched to California, for an evening fundraiser in Fresno, a rare departure from the battleground states dominating the campaign itinerary.
Both sides were stepping up mobilization efforts as Election Days approaches – with early voting kicking off in many states over the next few weeks. Democrats held a “nationwide weekend of action” courting voters in battleground states, and Republicans held their third “Super Saturday” to turn phone calls and door-to-door visits into votes.
Romney’s campaign announced Saturday it was showing a new Spanish-language ad in Florida that reinforces his argument that Obama is a decent man, but incapable of leading a more robust economic recovery.
“He looks like a nice guy, but that doesn’t get us jobs,” a man says.
A political group supporting Obama released an ad criticizing Romney for policies that it says would increase the tax burden on middle-income families. The ad by Priorities USA Action, a so-called super PAC, is showing in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Beaumont reported from Virginia Beach, Va. Associated Press writers Nancy Benac in Washington and Matthew Daly in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.