COLUMBUS, Ohio — President Barack Obama officially kicked off his re-election campaign here Saturday with a rousing rally for an arena crowd, looking to recapture some of the 2008 momentum that propelled him to victory even as he acknowledged an economy that's a work in progress.
"If people ask you what this campaign is about, you tell them it's still about hope, you tell
them it's still about change," Obama told a cheering crowd at Ohio State University's Value City Arena-Schottenstein Center. "It's still about ordinary people who believe that in the face of great odds we can make a difference in the life of this country.
"If you're willing to stick with me .... we will finish what we started," Obama said as he echoed a cry from his 2008 campaign: "We are still fired up, we are still ready to go."
Obama's team cast the Ohio rally and a second one Saturday in Virginia as the official kick-off to his re-election campaign, though the incumbent has been traveling the country for months, pressing his case for a second term at official White House events that, while arguably focused on presidential policy, often have the feel of a campaign rally.
But this one had all the trappings: From the university's marching band, to campaign videos, a banner that read "Forward," and an introduction by first lady Michelle Obama. A boisterous crowd shouted out "Four More Years" several times as Obama spoke. But the crowd didn't fill the arena, which seats 18,000. Entire sections of the upper deck were empty and there was floor space available.
Republicans mocked the turnout as "empty seats for empty promises."
As he touted his own record, noting the end of the war in Iraq and a winding down in Afghanistan, Obama laced into presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, whom he described as a patriotic family man who nevertheless would drag the U.S. back to the policies that cratered the economy in 2007.
"They're just hoping you won't remember the last time we tried it their way," Obama said as the crowd groaned. "We were there, we remember and we are not going back. We're moving this country forward."
Anemic jobs figures released Friday complicate Obama's message that he's pulled the country out of a deep dive and that it's slowly coming around and he acknowledged that. "I've heard from too many people wondering why they haven't been able to get one of the jobs that have been created, why their home is still underwater, why their family hasn't been touched by the recovery."
But he argued that Republicans have the wrong priorities: Favoring the rich over the middle class.
"Corporations aren't people," he said, turning a Romney remark from the Republican primaries against him. "People are people."
Obama argued that "on issue after issue we can't afford to spend the next four years going
Backward." He defended his health care law, as well as his decision to set a timeline for withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Obama, who enjoys a considerable edge over Romney among women voters, derided
Republicans for looking to cut funding to Planned Parenthood and for criticizing his initiative to require religious institutions to cover contraception in health insurance for employees.
"We are not turning back the clock," he said. "We are moving forward."
After leaving Ohio, Obama was to hold his second battleground state rally of the day at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. It will be his second visit to the state in as many days. Like Ohio, Virginia is considered a crucial swing state, though a Washington Post poll on Friday found Obama leading Romney there by 51 percent to 44 percent .
Both rallies were at college campuses, an important source of energy for Obama's 2008 campaign as he courted the youth vote, filling vast stadiums with young people - many of whom registered for the first time to vote for Obama.
Some of that ardor has cooled amid a sluggish economy and grinding partisan battles with Congress, and the campaign is laboring to rekindle the spark, said Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University. He said the Obama campaign is already organizing aggressively on campus, giving VIP tickets to Saturday's rally for students who agreed to volunteer for the campaign.
"These visits are often designed to fire up the base and get people enthusiastic," Beck said. "It's not the same Obama campaign this time around and they'll need to work hard."
The campaign took over the electronic messaging boards in the arena and pushed social media: Urging attendees to text, "check into the rally on Foursquare" and "Like Us on Facebook." The arena scoreboard displayed information for students who weren't sure where they'd be living in November to find out where to vote.
Josh Ahart, 20, vice president of the school's college Democrats, said he was recruited early Saturday to knock on doors in the dorms to kick up attendance when organizers got worried that there weren't enough people waiting in line.
Ahart said he didn't think the lack of a line signaled worry as much as college students sleeping in to preserve energy for a day that also included partying for the Kentucky Derby and Cinco de Mayo.
"From what we've seen, people are absolutely in," Ahart said, noting that a 7-minute campaign video released last month "went viral" on campus.
"People loved that, they love him," Ahart said. "The Republicans sure aren't talking to us. They don't even want us to vote."
No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio, which delivers 18 electoral votes. Obama won the state in 2008 with 52 percent, but state Republicans have since made considerable gains. Republicans in 2010 swept every state office, state party chair Bob Bennett said, picking up the governorship, three state-wide offices, and five congressional seats.
And Republican Sen. Rob Portman - a former official in the George W. Bush administration and oft-mentioned potential Romney vice presidential pick - was elected, keeping the Senate seat in GOP hands.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed Obama and Romney statistically tied in Ohio, with Romney cutting into a lead that Obama once held, a result that pollster Peter Brown said suggests voter optimism over the economy has cooled - though the state's unemployment rate is below the national average. In a troublesome sign for Obama, when voters were asked who would do a better job on the economy, Romney had the edge: 47 percent to 43 percent.
"What appears to be keeping Romney in the ball game, at least in Florida and Ohio, is the perception he can better fix the economy," Peter Brown said.
The poll showed a stark gender gap in Ohio with women backing Obama 50 percent to 37 percent for Romney, while men back Romney at 48 percent to 38 percent for Obama.
Still, voters give Obama credit for trying. "You can't blame the man for the economy," said Larry Davis, 68, a Columbus retiree and independent voter who voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008 but is leaning toward Obama.
"If you're just an average person making $50,000 or $60,000 they're not going to do anything for you," said Davis, who was waiting for his wife and a friend outside a local Kroger's supermarket.
"The people who make the big bucks, that's who they're working for."
Romney 's camp engaged Obama on the economy ahead of the rally with an open letter in Friday's Cleveland Plain Dealer, bashing Obama's economic policies.
"Dear Mr. President: Welcome to Ohio. I have a simple question for you: Where are the jobs?"
Romney wrote in the op-ed that accuses Obama of delivering "paltry results" in his time in office.
"I recognize, of course, as do all Americans, that you inherited an economic crisis," Romney wrote. "But you've now had three years to turn things around. The record of those three years is clear. Your policies have failed, not only in Ohio, but across the nation."
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