VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama took his pitch for a second White House term to Virginia on Friday, reminding supporters that the election battleground state could secure him victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
The Democratic president painted himself as a champion of ordinary Americans as his re-election team stepped up attacks on Romney over his business record and wealth.
It was the start of two-day swing that will see Obama crisscrossing Virginia, underscoring his determination not to let the pivotal state slip from his grasp and threaten his re-election chances in November.
“It’s going to be a close one,” he told a crowd in the cafeteria of a Virginia Beach high school, who had been unable to get into the main event because of a lack of space. “When we win Virginia, we’re going to have won the election.”
Political strategists view Virginia, Ohio and Florida as vital states for Romney’s White House bid and say that unless the Republican takes two of them, he will not be able to reach the 270 electoral college vote threshold he needs for victory.
Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years to win Virginia in 2008, and recent polls show him with an edge over Romney averaging about five percentage points in the state, which carries 13 electoral college votes.
But Republicans have dominated elections in Virginia in the past three years and Romney’s campaign promises to put up a stiff challenge in November. Democrats know they need to fight to keep it in Obama’s column.
“It’s going to be tough,” Virginia Beach secretary Vicki Johnson, 57, said as she waited for Obama to speak in a packed high school gym. “It’s half and half right now. I‘m not sure.”
Obama also used the event to tout his proposal to extend Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000, rolled out on Monday, and sought to counter Republican criticism of his push to let taxes rise for wealthier Americans.
“Now is not the time to raise taxes on the middle class. The economy is still fragile, we’re still digging ourselves out of this hole, so let’s provide certainty to 98 percent of Americans,” Obama told an enthusiastic audience of supporters.
Obama’s message of “tax fairness” is intended to re-energize his Democratic base and appeal to moderate independents while casting Romney, one of the richest men to ever run for the White House, as out-of-touch with the struggles of the middle class.
He hammered on the issue in a visit to the swing state of Iowa on Tuesday and will do so again in Ohio on Monday.
Republicans say the focus on Romney’s personal wealth - estimated at up to $250 million - is an attempt to divert attention from what they see as Obama’s failure to tackle a sluggish economy and high unemployment.
In the meantime, the Romney campaign and top Republicans in Virginia, a state rich in military installations and defense contractors and home to a large population of military voters, are trying to put the onus on Obama for deep cuts that could hit the Pentagon next year if the White House and Congress fail to reach a deal to rein in the country’s deficits.
But Obama’s emphasis on tax relief - plus his campaign’s focus on Romney’s finances - has helped the president to steer the debate away from his economic stewardship after government data last week showed another month of weak job growth.
Obama’s team seized on a Boston Globe newspaper report that Romney was still officially at the helm of Bain Capital in 2002, though he has insisted he left the firm in 1999.
The timing is important because a lengthier role would link him to a period of bankruptcies and layoffs at Bain-owned businesses and what Obama’s campaign describes as the outsourcing of jobs overseas.
Despite angry denials of the article’s accuracy from Romney’s camp, Obama’s campaign has refused to back away from accusations of possible illegality if Romney misrepresented his position to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Editing by Jim Loney