Vice President Joe Biden, speaking in Youngstown, Ohio, cast Republican… (Tony Dejak, Associated…)
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Vice President Joe Biden and unofficial Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney skirmished over the economy and their ability to improve it in swing-state appearances Wednesday that underscored each side's positioning on the key issue in November's general election.
Biden and other Democrats are seeking to disqualify Romney in the minds of voters as an alternative to President Obama. Polls consistently have found that voters give Romney better marks for his potential handling of the economy than they give Obama for dealing with it.
Romney and other Republicans have long criticized the president's moves on the economy. But in the face of improving conditions, they have also begun hammering on the nation's debt load, which has increased considerably under Obama.
Biden, in an appearance in Youngstown, framed the election as a choice between different economic philosophies that would have stark consequences for the middle class. He castigated Romney's record as the head of Bain Capital, zeroing in on the venture firm's control of GS Steel, a Kansas City plant that was the focus of a two-minute television ad airing in battleground states this week. When Bain bought the company it had $13 million in debt — a figure that ballooned to $533 million by the time the company filed for bankruptcy.
While workers lost jobs, healthcare benefits and saw their pensions dwindle, Biden said, Romney and his partners "walked away with at least $12 million in compensation."
"Romney made sure the guys on top got to play by a separate set of rules. He ran up massive debts, and the middle class lost," Biden said to his audience at a manufacturing plant. "And folks, he thinks that experience is going to help our economy?"
He bristled at Republican assertions that criticism of Romney's tenure at Bain Capital amounts to class warfare.
"I resent the fact that they think we're talking about envy: 'It's job envy, wealth envy.' That we don't dream," Biden said, his voice booming. "My mother and father dreamed as much as any rich guy dreams. They don't get it! They don't get who we are!"¿¿
The Youngstown visit opened a two-day campaign swing for Biden through Ohio, one of the top targets for both campaigns. His emphasis was on a resurgence of manufacturing in the industrial Midwest, for which the administration credits its policies. (In a March trip to Ohio, Biden lauded Obama's support for the auto industry's federal rescue, which Romney opposed.)
Romney, meantime, was campaigning in another key state, Florida, where he spoke to several hundred people inSt. Petersburgbefore attending another in a series of campaign fundraisers he has held throughout the state this week.
He focused on the nation's debt load, accusing Obama of failing to stem growth in federal spending and ignoring a 2008 campaign promise to cut the debt in half.
"Instead he doubled it, all right, he doubled it," Romney said.
While wanting to turn to the debt issue as a hedge against the chance that improvements in the economy blunt his broader attack on the president, Romney has labored under a disadvantage: Obama's predecessor, RepublicanGeorge W. Bush, presided over the accumulation of $4 trillion in debt. Romney acknowledged Bush's impact but referred to him as "the predecessor."
"It's true you can't blame one party or the other for all the debts this country has, because both parties in my opinion have spent too much and borrowed too much when they were in power," Romney told a crowd of several hundred people.
But, he added, "I find it incomprehensible that a president could come to office and call his predecessor's record irresponsible and unpatriotic and then do almost nothing to fix it, and instead every year to add more and more and more spending.
"If I'm president, I'm actually going to take responsibility and lead, and get us on track to have a balanced budget," he said.
Romney has not offered specifics on how he would do that, however; his proposals to increase military spending and cut taxes dramatically would make it more difficult to lower the debt without massive reductions in domestic programs that remain popular with voters.
As a political strategy, though, keying on the debt is meant to attract not only Florida Republicans but the independents who could swing the state his way. Obama won Florida by a thin margin in 2008. On Wednesday, Romney urged members of the audience to "go out and talk to your friends and get them to lean this way as well."
"There are a lot of people who haven't heard from us. We need to get to the college kids, for instance, and people coming out of high school, and folks that have only lived in Florida for short while."
Memoli reported from Youngstown and Reston from St. Petersburg.