CINCINNATI — President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney dueled Thursday from opposite ends of a state vital to their November chances, framing the election as a choice between failure and economic progress — and differing sharply on who was to blame for years of disappointing job growth.
The two had been scheduled to speak simultaneously, but Romney pushed up his speech at a Cincinnati manufacturing plant to get a jump on Obama. He said the president had had 31/2 years to spur recovery after the economy tanked in 2008 and had little to show and not much to offer beyond high-flown rhetoric.
“Talk is cheap,” said the former Massachusetts governor, speaking before a banner that read “Putting jobs first,” a recent mantra of his campaign. Then, seizing on Obama’s own slogan — “Forward” — Romney cited the huge run-up in the federal debt and asked, “You want four more years of that? You call that forward? That’s forward over a cliff. That’s forward on the way to Greece.”
Obama, addressing rowdy supporters at a community college outside Cleveland, yoked Romney to President George W. Bushand Republicans in Congress, saying they were pursuing an economic agenda — deregulation, tax cuts for the rich — that caused nearly a decade of job losses from which the country is still recovering.
“Why would we think that they would work better this time?” Obama asked. “We can’t afford to jeopardize our future by repeating the mistakes of the past.”
Their messages were not strikingly new, but rather variations on their standard stump speeches. Obama argued that things could be — and have been — a whole lot worse. Romney suggested they should — and, with his hand, would be — a whole lot better.
But their back-to-back appearances and the setting, just about 250 miles apart in arguably the most important state up for grabs Nov. 6, crisply delineated the case each is making in their neck-and-neck fight for the White House.
The backdrop was significant. Ohio looms large in the strategic calculations of both campaigns, especially Romney’s. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying the state; polls suggest the contest in Ohio, which has been barraged with more TV advertising than practically any other state, is exceedingly close.
Obama was making his 22nd visit as president. Romney was making his fourth visit since winning a crucial March 6 primary and plans to return for three stops Sunday as part of a bus trip through the Northeast and Midwest.
The presidential journey to this perennial battleground also represented an attempt by Obama, in effect, to relaunch his campaign after several rough weeks marked by a disappointing May jobs report, off-script comments by several Democratic surrogates and, last week, a remark by Obama himself — “the private sector is doing fine” — that Republicans seized as evidence of economic obtuseness.
Obama turned, as he often has amid political difficulty, to the delivery of a high-profile address, offering remarks that rivaled, at more than 53 minutes, the duration of set-piece speeches like his State of the Union appearances before Congress.
The president strongly defended his performance on the economy while acknowledging that many are still suffering. While not all he hoped, he said, the country has managed to create more private-sector jobs in the last two years than in the previous seven under Bush, his GOP predecessor.
“The debate in this election is not about whether we need to grow faster or whether we need to create more jobs or whether we need to pay down our debt. Of course the economy isn’t where it needs to be … everybody knows that,” Obama said. “The debate in this election is about how we grow faster and how we create more jobs and how we pay down our debt.”
He cast November as a chance for voters to break the Washington stalemate between fundamentally different philosophies: the Democratic approach which, he argued, had produced slow but continued progress over the last three years, and the Republican prescription he blamed for creating the economic mess in the first place.
If voters “want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney,” Obama said.
His GOP rival, who rarely mentions Bush on the stump, instead focused unsparingly on the perceived failures of the Democratic incumbent.
He ridiculed Obama once more for his comment regarding the private sector — featured in a new Romney ad — telling about 150 guests on the Cincinnati factory floor that the president would doubtless not repeat it. More likely, he said, Obama will tell voters, “Give me four more years, even though I didn’t get it done in the first three and a half.”
“In my experience, in thinking about people who I want to have work for me, whether it’s my doctor or the person that’s going to be painting the house, I want to make sure they did a good job the first time,” Romney said. “And if they didn’t, I want someone who can do a better job.”
(His wording avoided a repeat of a much-derided Romney statement earlier in the campaign in which he stated, “I like being able to fire people.” Although the remark, referring to insurance companies, was taken out of context, it fueled the argument that the multimillionaire candidate is out of touch with working people.)
Romney renewed his vows to expand oil, coal and gas exploration, repeal Obama’s healthcare law and cut the deficit, though he offered few specifics.
To maximize live TV coverage, Romney started speaking a quarter of an hour ahead of schedule and finished in a relatively brisk 18 minutes. Even so, both CNN and Fox News cut away just about 10 minutes into the candidate’s remarks. Of the major cable networks, only MSNBC carried both the Romney and Obama speeches in their entirely.
Finnegan reported from Cincinnati and Barabak from San Francisco. Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report from Washington.