President Barack Obama kicked off a bus tour in battleground Florida Saturday, urging voters to back his plan for economic recovery and reject Republican proposals that he said would give tax breaks to the wealthy, gut retiree benefits and put oil rigs offshore.
Repeating the themes of his recent convention, Obama vowed steady if slow progress rebuilding the economy. He also aimed at the state’s large population of retirees, promising to reform entitlements including Social Security and Medicare while still protecting them, and spoke to the state’s opposition to offshore drilling.
“No American should have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies,’’ Obama told thousands of hot, sweaty supporters at St. Petersburg College. “They should retire with the dignity and the respect and the care that they have earned.’’
He pressed his argument for new sources of energy and lambasted Republican proposals to increase oil drilling. “I’m not going to let oil companies write this country’s energy plan, or endanger our coastline,” he said.
Republican rival Mitt Romney spent the day in another battleground state – Virginia – ending the day with an appearance at a Sprint Cup Series NASCAR race in Richmond.
In Florida, his campaign used a disappointing new jobs report from Friday to hammer the president’s record.
“President Obama owes it to Floridians to explain why he thinks we are better off,’’ said Jeff Bechdel, a Romney spokesman in the state. “With Florida unemployment rising to 8.8 percent last month and yesterday’s national jobs report showing our economy crippled in stagnation, the people of Florida can’t wait for answers any longer and are holding the president accountable for answers.”
Obama was introduced by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
“We have a leader with a cool head, and his name is President Barack Obama,” Crist told the audience. “He is working hard for the middle class. He is working hard for Florida.”
A former Republican, Crist supported Obama’s federal stimulus plan in 2009, then dropped his party affiliation to wage an independent bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010. He lost a three-way race to Republican Marco Rubio.
"When I served as a Republican governor – you know I’m not in that party anymore, they left me – but when I was still in that party, even though I was a Republican … President Obama was there for us," Crist said.
The enthusiastic crowd of 11,000, clad in shorts and flip flops, waved blue “Forward’’ signs and occasionally broke into chants of “Four More Years.”
Delores Morgen, 69, a Clearwater retiree who has long campaigned for Democrats, said she’s concerned because Romney supporters have fanned across Florida to spread the message that Obama will end Social Security and Medicare benefits. “A lot of old people believe it – they think he’s running for president, he wouldn’t lie,’’ she said.
“He’s very inspirational,’’ said Pamela Mayes, 36, a Tampa underwriter who arrived at 6:30 a.m. to hear the president speak for the first time. “We believe in his message.’’
A handful of people at the school’s Natural Habitat Park Field -- some who had been standing in the steaming heat since before dawn – had to be treated for dehydration. Volunteers passed out bottled water.
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Obama also reached for younger voters at the college campus.
“We can gut education like these other folks were recommending,” Obama said. “Or we can decide that in the United States of America, no child should have her dreams differed.’’
Obama’s two-day tour of Florida also took him to the Kissimmee Civic Center outside Orlando, where many of the state’s Puerto Rican voters live. On Sunday, he travels to Melbourne and West Palm Beach.
Obama will be followed by former President Bill Clinton, who will campaign in Florida on Tuesday in the Miami area and on Wednesday in the Orlando area.
Florida voted for Obama in 2008. But the economic downturn has hit the Sunshine State particularly hard, leaving a slew of home foreclosures and an unemployment rate higher than the national average. Polls show Obama locked in a close race with Republican Mitt Romney.
“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or that it’s going to be easy. I never have,’’ Obama said. “Sometimes I ask people to go back to 2008 and look at what I said. I said this was going to take some time because these problems have been building up for a long time.’’
“The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place,’’ Obama said. “And I’m asking you to choose that future. I am asking you to rally not just behind me but around a set of goals for your country…Real, achievable goals.’’
Obama has traveled to Florida 20 times since he became president nearly four years ago. He has been 10 times this year alone, underscoring the importance of the state.