In dueling speeches that sought to frame the economic debate for their election showdown in November, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Thursday offered differing visions for how to restore strong growth while telling separate Ohio crowds that the other's policies have failed.
The president and the former Massachusetts governor both emphasized particular themes of community in their campaign speeches in a battleground state hit hard by the 2008 recession and its aftermath.
Romney, speaking at a factory in the Cincinnati area minutes before Obama's speech in Cleveland, focused on what he called the president's failure to deliver promised economic growth so far in his first term.
"Talk is cheap," Romney, the certain Republican nominee, said of the incumbent Democratic president. "Action speaks very loud, and if you want to see the results of his economic policies, look around Ohio and the country."
He encouraged voters to ask their friends and neighbors if they are better off since Obama became president, predicting that small business owners, bankers, unemployed college graduates and others will answer no.
Obama, meanwhile, emphasized the election is about a choice for the direction of the country, saying Romney "and his allies in Congress" advocate the same economic policies of tax cuts and deregulation that brought the recent recession.
He cited in particular the refusal by congressional Republicans to accept any kind of tax increase on the wealthy, saying that stance prevented a comprehensive deficit reduction agreement last year.
"The only thing that can break the stalemate is you," Obama said to cheers. "This November is your chance to render a verdict on the debate over how to grow the economy, how to create good jobs, how to pay down our deficit."
The nearly simultaneous addresses reflected what polls have consistently shown -- the economy is the top issue in the November presidential election -- and both campaigns continued their high-stakes efforts to seize the advantage on it.
Obama has been rocked by bad economic news in recent weeks, including a tepid May jobs report and Thursday's news that first-time unemployment claims rose slightly last week.
Last Friday, the president provided fuel to Romney's repeated claims that he is out of touch and his policies have been ineffective by telling reporters that compared to the public sector, the private sector "is doing fine."
A new Romney campaign ad Thursday replays the president uttering the phrase several times while highlighting the nation's economic woes by flashing on-screen text: "23.2 million Americans are unemployed," "40 straight months over 8% unemployment" and "middle-class struggles deepen under Obama."
The spot is the first negative ad against Obama by the Romney camp so far in the general election campaign, although super-PACs backing Romney have run attack ads against the president.
Obama tried to play down the rough patch, telling the raucous Cuyahoga Community College crowd that the campaign will be long and tough.
"Over the next five months, this election will take many twists and many turns, polls will go up and polls will go down, there will be no shortage of gaffes and controversies that keep both campaigns busy and give the press something to write about," he said, adding with a smile that "you may have heard I recently made my own unique contribution to that process."
As the audience laughed, Obama added: "It wasn't the first time. It won't be the last."
He summed up the Republican campaign as an attack against his presidency, saying the "scary voice" in television and Romney himself will "tell you the economy is bad, that it is all my fault, that I can't fix it because I think government is always the answer or because I didn't make a lot of money in the private sector and don't understand it, or because I am in over my head, or because I think everybody is doing just fine."
"That may be their plan to win the election but it is not a plan to create jobs," Obama said. "It is not a plan to grow the economy."
He cited the ravages of the recession on the economy and highlighted progress made by his administration, being careful to note that people are still hurting and more needs to happen. At the same time, Obama offered his oft-repeated call for a balanced approach to economic growth and deficit reduction that raises taxes on the wealthy and holds down spending while ensuring that critical areas for future growth such as education, clean energy and infrastructure development get needed money.
In his speech, Romney also stuck with his stump themes, saying Obama blew his chance to fix the economy and now it is time for change.
"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 and if they didn't, I want someone who can do a better job," Romney said.
A survey released Thursday showed that more Americans blame former President George W. Bush than Obama for the continuing economic problems that began in the previous administration.
According to the Gallup poll, 68% of respondents said Bush deserves either a great deal or a moderate amount of blame, compared with 31% who said the former president deserves not much or no blame at all.
In the survey, 52% said Obama deserves blame, with 48% saying he isn't to blame for current economic conditions.
Another poll shows independent voters are dissatisfied with the economic plans of both candidates.