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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama used his first rallies of the 2012 campaign on Saturday to attack Republican Mitt Romney for learning the "wrong lessons" as a business executive, and promised to move the economy forward if he wins a second term.
Obama formally launched his Chicago-based re-election effort last year, but the Democratic president's own campaigning has been confined to fundraisers while the Republican Party whittled down possible nominees to run against him.
That changed this weekend. Addressing spirited crowds in Ohio and Virginia - two states that could be critical to keeping the White House - Obama tried to regain the momentum that fueled his 2008 victory while sharpening his focus on the presumptive Republican nominee.
Obama, dressed in a button-down shirt with no jacket or tie, called Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive, a "patriotic American" whose policies would not help the middle class.
"He has run a large financial firm and he has run a state, but I think he has drawn the wrong lessons from those experiences. He sincerely believes that if CEOs and wealthy investors like him make money the rest of us will automatically prosper as well," Obama said in Columbus, Ohio.
Romney frequently cites his background as a business leader as a strength that could help him create jobs and boost growth, accusing Obama of not doing enough to bring the U.S. economy out of its slump.
During the rallies, Obama said he was not satisfied with the country's economic progress, but he said Romney - whom he called a champion of congressional Republicans - would make things worse by cutting taxes for the very wealthy and espousing the mistaken view that bigger profits lead to better jobs.
"Governor Romney doesn't seem to get that. He doesn't seem to understand that maximizing profits by whatever means necessary - whether it's your layoffs or outsourcing or tax avoidance or union-busting - might not always be good for the average American or for the American economy," Obama said.
"Why else would he want to spend trillions more on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Why else would he propose cutting his own taxes while raising them on 18 million working families?"
Republicans accuse Obama of having infused politics into his taxpayer-funded "official" events over the past year and scoff at the notion that his campaigning is just beginning.
Many of the president's recent trips have featured digs at Republicans in Congress over energy, education and other issues.
On Saturday, with his popular wife, Michelle Obama, by his side and Air Force One as a campaign plane, Obama laid out the general thesis of his campaign: that Romney's policies would send the United States back to the era that started the financial crisis and recession.
"We were there, we remember, and we are not going back - we are moving this country forward," Obama said. "Forward" is the Obama campaign's latest slogan, and people in the Ohio and Virginia rallies held signs with that word above their heads.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Obama was now running on "hype and blame" because his record as president had been thin and because he failed to live up to the "hope and change" slogan he campaigned on in 2008.
"Obama talks a lot about moving forward but has he forgotten he's been president for the past three years?" Priebus said. "He failed to change Washington as he promised and unlike 2008, he will have to answer for his record."
Obama, sounding slightly hoarse at the Richmond, Virginia, rally, said his campaign was still about hope.
Obama's advisers have mapped out several scenarios to win the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the presidency, and the choice of states for his first rallies was not coincidental.
Ohio, with its large cache of 18 electoral votes, is a particularly coveted prize. No Republican has made it to the White House in the last century without winning the state. Obama bested Republican rival John McCain there in 2008.
Virginia, with 13 electoral votes, also went to Obama in the last election - the first time a Democrat won there since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Polls show Obama is leading Romney in Virginia and Ohio. Both states have unemployment rates below the national average, which dipped to 8.1 percent in April.
In Ohio, the Obama campaign is hoping to capitalize on union anger over an attempt by the state's Republican governor, John Kasich, to limit collective bargaining rights for firefighters, police officers, and other state workers.
And in Virginia, the campaign is trying to seize on Obama's advantage with women voters after the governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, promoted legislation that would have required women to have a trans-vaginal sonogram before getting an abortion.
The Ohio arena where he and the first lady spoke was not filled to its 18,300-person capacity, with a large chunk of its upper balcony left empty. A campaign official said 14,000 people attended and noted Romney's largest event in Ohio had drawn just 500 people.
A video to rev up the crowd included a virtual highlight reel of Obama as a candidate in 2008 and then as president. One moment showed a clip of former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, followed by a shot of Obama brushing something off of his shoulder. The crowd roared.
Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis and Timothy Gardner in Washington