President Barack Obama reaches out to working-class voters at Lorain County… (Brendan Smialowski, AFP/Getty…)
ELYRIA, Ohio — President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney engaged in a long-distance debate over the key issue in the election — the economy and how to improve it — as both campaigned through key swing states more than six months ahead of November's election.
Heading to an Ohio town battered by plant closures, Obama reached out to working-class voters, making the case for robust federal programs to help them get a leg up — in this case job training — and emphasizing that he "wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth."
The trip Wednesday to this former manufacturing hub near Cleveland was Obama's 20th visit to the state as president.
Obama did not mention Romney by name — the speech at Lorain County Community College here was an ostensibly official visit, not a campaign stop. But he drew frequent comparisons between his policies and Republican proposals to cut federal spending and taxes. At the same time, he sprinkled his speech with personal references aimed at distinguishing himself and the first lady from Romney, the multimillionaire son of a former governor.
Likening his background and his wife's to that of the community college students he spoke to, Obama said that "somebody gave us a chance, just like these folks up here are looking for a chance."
Romney, speaking to several hundred supporters in Charlotte, N.C., accused the president of failing to deliver on the promises he made to voters four years ago. He alternated between quoting hopeful passages from Obama's 2008 speech accepting the Democratic nomination and ticking off sobering statistics about the nation's economy: an 8% unemployment rate, lost jobs and 24 million Americans out of work or underemployed.
In 2008, Obama had said progress could be measured by the number of people who could find a job that paid their mortgage. "You won't hear that since he gave that speech, and became president, that there have been 50,000 more job losses here in North Carolina," Romney said. "You will not hear that 400,000 North Carolinians are out of work.
"We've learned who Barack Obama is and what he's capable of doing — that he's over his head and he's swimming in the wrong direction," he added.
In Ohio, the state of the economy provides talking points for both parties. Unemployment in the state, 7.6% in February, the latest seasonally adjusted figure, is a full point lower than when Obama took office. Even as Republicans criticized Obama for his performance in creating jobs, the state's Republican governor, John Kasich, was boasting in a Twitter message that "OH leads in new jobs."
The president's strategy was clear as he led a round-table discussion with unemployed workers who were learning skills needed for high-tech manufacturing and healthcare jobs. He touted his support for federal funding for training programs and told a larger group of students and teachers that the trainees embodied "what America's about."
"And so the question now is, how do we make sure that all of America is expressing that spirit through making sure that everybody's getting a fair shot?" Obama said.
His "fair shot" argument focused on the House Republican budget, which Romney has said he supports. In the name of cutting the deficit, the Republican budget would overhaul Medicare and cut spending on programs throughout government, while lowering tax rates.
"By the time you retire, Medicare would be turned into a voucher system that likely would not cover the doctors or the care that you need," Obama said. "Job training programs like this one would be forced to cut back. Thousands of Americans would lose out on critical employment and training services."
From Ohio, Obama flew to Dearborn, Mich., for a series of fundraisers.
Hennessey reported from Elyria and Reston from Charlotte. Times staff writer Seema Mehta in Los Angeles contributed to this report.