BEDFORD HEIGHTS/BOWLING GREEN, Ohio (Reuters) - The race for president focused squarely on the battle for working-class votes on Wednesday, as Republican Mitt Romney scrambled to make up ground on Democratic President Barack Obama in the crucial battleground state of Ohio.
On a day when the rivals held dueling events across the state, Romney mixed empathy for the unemployed - at one point, he said his “heart aches” for the jobless - with attacks on Obama’s trade policy toward China. Foreign trade is a sensitive subject in a state where thousands of manufacturing jobs have gone overseas.
Romney’s cause was made more urgent by a new Quinnipiac University/New York Times poll that indicated Obama led the former Massachusetts governor by 10 percentage points in Ohio and was ahead by similar margins in two other important states - Florida and Pennsylvania. Other troubling signs: Obama held nearly a 20-point lead in Florida among women, while Romney’s lead among men had dwindled to 3 points.
Ohio and Florida are politically divided states central to Romney’s hopes to amass the 270 electoral votes needed for victory in the November 6 election. Losing either state could be disastrous for the Republican, who trailed Obama in the nationwide Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll of likely voters by 49 to 43 percent.
The Quinnipiac survey suggested that Romney, who was trailing Obama by a smaller margin at the beginning of last week, had been significantly damaged by the disclosure of a secretly taped video of his remarks at a private fundraiser in May.
In the video, Romney - a former private equity executive with a fortune estimated at up to $250 million - tells wealthy donors to his campaign that 47 percent of Americans are “victims” who depend on government, do not pay federal income taxes and are unlikely to support him.
The airing of the comments last week sent Romney’s campaign into crisis mode. Democrats were quick to point out that the “47 percent” to whom Romney referred - those who receive some form of government benefits - included not just the poor but working-class families, members of the military and the elderly, some of whom Romney has depended upon for support.
So in a sense, Romney’s bus tour in Ohio this week has had the feel of a damage-control operation.
At a stop in Westerville, Romney told an enthusiastic crowd: “I’ve been across the country. My heart aches for the people I’ve seen.
“There are so many people in our country that are hurting right now,” he said. “I want to help them. I know what it takes to get an economy going again and creating jobs.”
Romney also took aim at Obama, chiding him for not labeling China as a “currency manipulator,” and blaming the president for not creating more jobs.
“You can be extraordinarily eloquent and describe all the wonderful things you can do,” Romney said, clearly referring to Obama. “But when you cut through the words, you can look at the record. And when you can see policies that have not created jobs America needs, then you know it’s time to choose a new leader.”
Romney fought back against claims by Obama’s campaign that the Republican’s proposed across-the-board 20 percent tax cut would benefit mostly the wealthy.
Romney also said his plan might not significantly lower tax bills for many Americans because unspecified tax deductions would be cut.
“By the way, don’t be expecting a huge cut in taxes,” Romney said, “because I’m also going to be closing loopholes on deductions.”
Romney has criticized Obama as not being tough enough in pushing back against Chinese trade practices that have led to cheap goods flooding the U.S. market and killing American jobs.
Obama, who spoke at two state universities in Ohio on Wednesday, lashed back at Romney on China trade and reinforced the Democrats’ message that Romney, in his job at Bain Capital, sometimes cut U.S. jobs or sent them overseas.
“He’s been talking tough on China,” Obama said of Romney. “When you hear this newfound outrage, when you see these ads he’s running promising to get tough on China, it feels a lot like that fox saying, ‘You know, we need more secure chicken coops.’ “
Ohio is a relatively challenging place for Romney’s economic message. The state unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, below the national rate of 8.1 percent.
One in eight jobs in Ohio is linked to the automobile industry, and Obama’s campaign has been reminding residents that he pushed through the government bailout that helped save the auto industry and thousands of jobs, while Romney opposed it.
Romney’s campaign amplified its message with a new ad featuring the candidate speaking directly into the camera.
“President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families,” Romney says in the ad. “The difference is, my policies will make things better for them. We shouldn’t measure compassion by how many people are on welfare.”
Paul Ryan, Romney’s vice presidential running mate, campaigned in Colorado, another battleground state where polls show Romney in a tight race with Obama.
He also bashed China - and attacked Obama on foreign policy, invoking the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that contributed to Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s failed re-election bid.
Romney and Ryan had campaigned together in Ohio on Tuesday.
It was their first appearance together in more than three weeks. Romney had drawn criticism from some Republicans for not campaigning more aggressively and spending much of the past two weeks behind closed doors, raising money and preparing for his October 3 debate against Obama.
Romney aides have promised he will be conduct a more active campaign.
Additional reporting by Samuel P. Jacobs in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Patricia Zengerle and Steve Holland; Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney