JACKSONVILLE, Fla./ROXBURY, Massachusetts (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought a boost for his campaign in the crucial state of Florida on Thursday, amid new signs that voters are increasingly dissatisfied with his handling of the U.S. economy and questions about whether his attacks on Republican Mitt Romney are resonating.
Kicking off a two-day swing through this politically divided state, Obama tried to shore up his support with senior citizens and continued to cast Romney as a defender of the rich at the expense of the middle class.
His trip came a few hours after two new polls suggested that even after several weeks in which his campaign has controlled the narrative of the presidential race, voters’ concerns about the economy are dragging down Obama’s support for the November 6 election.
A CBS News/New York Times poll showed Romney with a slight edge nationwide, raising questions about how much voters are paying attention to Obama’s efforts to define Romney as an out-of-touch, wealthy elitist who refuses to release much information about his income and taxes.
In another sign that Romney could be picking up steam, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Romney has closed a gap with Obama in Virginia, another battleground state. The race there is now tied at 44 percent apiece, the poll said.
During his remarks in Jacksonville, Obama noted that he might be outspent by the Republicans in a campaign that will cost both sides hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Florida, I’ve been outspent before, and I’ve been counted out before, but through every campaign, what has always given me hope is the American people. You have the ability to cut through all that nonsense,” he said.
Romney, meanwhile, showed on Thursday that he had taken to heart other Republicans’ calls for him to be more aggressive in attacking Obama.
Romney’s campaign has struggled to deal with a wave of attacks from Obama’s team that have included questions about whether Romney was hiding embarrassing details about his finances and had outsourced U.S. jobs to other countries while leading Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney founded.
Visiting a business in Roxbury, Mass., Romney cited reports that Obama’s Jobs Council has not met for six months, a development that the White House said was because Obama has “a lot on his plate.”
Romney also continued to blast Obama over a comment the president made this week that Republicans said showed he is anti-business.
“If you own a business, you didn’t build that,” Obama had said in Virginia, by which he meant that successful business owners have had the public’s help at some point in their lives -- whether through public education, roads and or other government-funded projects that created an environment for businesses to bloom.
“It wasn’t a gaffe,” Romney said at a trucking company just outside of Boston. “It was instead his ideology.”
Romney’s team is hoping that Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line will give it some strategic footing after a week that began with some Republicans openly voicing their concerns that Romney was too passive in responding to Obama’s attacks.
Obama aides said the president’s comments were taken out of context, but Romney advisers said they think they have found a message that is resonating more than the attacks by Obama’s campaign.
“This really does crystallize the difference between the two candidates,” one adviser said. “And it taps into a lot of people’s anxieties about the president’s handling of the poor economy.”
The CBS News/New York Times poll published on Thursday showed Romney’s key argument -- that the president had failed in his stewardship of the economy -- seemed to be resonating more with voters than the Obama team’s focus on Romney’s past.
The poll showed 39 percent of respondents saying they approved of Obama’s economic leadership while 55 percent disapproved. That represented a worsening from April, when 44 percent approved of the president’s economic stewardship while 48 percent disapproved.
The Obama campaign played down the significance of the findings and pointed to another element in the poll: that Americans believed Obama cared more about the middle class than Romney did.
“We’ve always known this election would be close,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
It could be especially close in Florida, a state Obama won in 2008 but that traditionally swings its support between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.
Recent polls have shown Obama and Romney neck-and-neck in the state, which accounts for 29 electoral votes in the presidential election. A presidential candidate needs 270 state electoral votes to win.
Obama retains strong support from Hispanic voters in Florida, but weakness in the housing market and concerns about the overall U.S. economy have clouded his broader prospects, while a large number of conservative-leaning retirees there have helped bolster Romney’s chances.
Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman