President Obama greets supporters at a rally at George Mason University… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
FAIRFAX, Va. — Pressing his case that his Republican challenger is untrustworthy, President Obama diagnosed him with a case of "Romnesia" on Friday but pledged to stop it from spreading by reminding voters of Mitt Romney's past conservative positions.
The jocular argument had a serious intent: convincing voters in this key state — particularly women — that Romney's effort to move from the positions he took in the GOP primaries to those with appeal to the more moderate general election audience represented "backtracking and sidestepping."
"If you come down with a case of 'Romnesia' and you can't seem to remember the policies that are still on your website," Obama said, "here's the good news.... We can fix you up! We've got a cure!"
The Romney campaign fired back quickly that Americans had perfect recall of the last four years and of the economic hardship that Republicans blame on the president.
"Have you been watching the Obama campaign lately? It's absolutely remarkable," Romney said shortly after taking the stage Friday night at a huge rally in Daytona Beach, Fla. "They have no agenda for the future, no agenda for America, no agenda for a second term. It's a good thing they won't have a second term. They've been reduced to petty attacks and silly word games. Just watch it."
Calling Obama's effort the "incredible shrinking campaign," he added: "This is a big country with big opportunities and great challenges, and they keep talking about smaller and smaller things."
The back-and-forth came as the two candidates prepared to retreat over the weekend for two days of preparation for their final debate, scheduled Monday night in Boca Raton, Fla. The subject will be foreign policy, and each candidate will be drawing a contrast in substance and in style.
Since his weak performance in the first debate, Obama has taken to heart the need to contrast himself with Romney. The "Romnesia" riff he debuted Friday was a device for pointing out differences to a crowd of suburban women he was trying to fire up for election day. He ran through a laundry list of conservative positions from which, he said, Romney was trying to escape.
Romney is also drawing contrasts in Virginia, where, as in a host of battleground states, the race is a statistical tie. In a state heavy with veterans and defense contractors, Romney has been hitting hard on the Pentagon cuts scheduled to set in at the end of the year if Republicans and Democrats in Congress cannot agree on a plan to avert them.
His ads tie Obama to the pending reductions, put in place as part of a bipartisan agreement. Obama aides this week were floating the possibility that the president would veto legislation to block the automatic cuts if Republicans refused to raise taxes on the wealthy to help keep deficit spending in check.
Responding to the "Romnesia" joke, Romney supporters pivoted straight back to their economic argument — and to the potential defense cuts.
"What is really frightening is that we know a second term for President Obama will bring devastating defense cuts that will cost Virginia over 130,000 jobs, more burdensome regulations, and the biggest tax increase in history on our small businesses and families," said Virginia state Delegate Barbara Comstock, a senior advisor to Romney.
At this point in the campaign, the two sides are shifting into voter-turnout mode, trying to get volunteers and supporters out to vote early — hopefully with their friends and neighbors in tow. The ground game is already in high gear; Obama's campaign has 60 offices in Virginia, while Romney's campaign has 30.
The point of Obama's visit Friday was to drive up the excitement. At George Mason University, the president reminded listeners that Romney has opposed the Lilly Ledbetter law, which makes it easier to sue for pay inequality, and has promised to rescind Obama's 2010 healthcare law and other administration initiatives.
"Now, anybody who thinks that this election doesn't matter, know this: My opponent has promised to repeal all of the things we just talked about as soon as he takes office — says he'd do it on Day One," Obama said. "We know full well that if he gets the chance, he'll rubber-stamp the agenda of this Republican Congress the second he takes office. Virginia, we can't give him that chance."
Romney has pledged to take away federal funding for Planned Parenthood and supports the overturning of the Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal. He also opposes the Obama healthcare overhaul's requirement that insurance companies provide contraceptive coverage.
Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Daytona Beach contributed to this report.