FORT BLISS, Texas – His convention turn coming fast, President Barack Obama on Friday began sprinting toward his one of his last, best shots to win over voters, ready to promise better days even for those who do not feel better off.
Rival Mitt Romney, flush with confidence after his party’s convention, declared: “We love this country and we’re taking it back.”
Both angling for the aura of leadership, Romney swooped in on rain-drenched Louisiana, while Obama stood with troops in Texas and reminded the nation that he ended the war in Iraq. Obama, too, will visit the storm-battered Louisiana on Monday, a move the White House said was decided before Romney revealed his plans.
The race for the White House suddenly felt more urgent, a final heated day of August giving way to a two-month stretch in which many voters will get serious about making their choices – or even voting for one in the states that allow early balloting.
The political buzz followed Romney, hours after a convention speech in which he introduced himself to America and asked on-the-fence voters to let go of a president who “has disappointed America.”
A rambling, surprising and strange appearance by movie legend Clint Eastwood at the GOP event still had people talking, too.
But attention was shifting to the moment for Obama, the incumbent who gets the last shot at making a lasting impression before the October debates.
His party’s national convention, which starts Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., will dwell less on how life is now and more on where voters want their lives to be. Obama inherited an economy in the midst of a monster recession and the pace of the stable, sluggish recovery is perhaps Obama’s greatest burden to re-election.
The coming days, capped by Obama’s speech Thursday night, will crystalize his re-election pitch: An economy built on ending tax cuts for the rich and putting more effort into education, energy, tax reform and debt reduction.
He will call Romney a peddler of failed trickle-down ideas that will hurt the middle class and the needy.
Building by the day, the convention roll-in for Obama will take him through the battleground states of Iowa, Colorado, Ohio and Virginia. At the event itself, first lady Michelle Obama will command the stage one night, followed the next by Bill Clinton, who will ask voters to remember the good times and pledge Obama can return them.
To put a face on the election message, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will be joined on political stops by what their campaign calls “American Heroes,” such as a student or teacher or veteran whose life story reflects Obama’s agenda. The Democratic National Convention will also feature them.
Romney kept up a campaign pace out of his convention, with plans for stops in Ohio and Florida on Saturday before a quieter stretch into Labor Day.
Friday was a pivot point, but hardly a breather in the window between the two conventions.
Before heading separately out of Tampa, Romney and running mate Paul Ryan wooed the voters of powerful Florida, which went for Obama in 2008.
“Hold us accountable. Listen to what we have to say,” Romney said. “I plan on winning in Florida. We love this country and we’re taking it back.”
Romney shook up his itinerary, as he had hinted, to get to Louisiana and inspect Hurricane Isaac’s damage. It was the kind of trip better associated with a president than a presidential candidate – Romney has no authority to direct help – but he did draw attention to the plight of victims there. The White House offered no complaints.
In the town of Jean Lafitte, Romney’s motorcade plowed through water that at some points was a foot or deeper, passing flooded homes, lawns and businesses. Residents stood in the water and watched the presidential candidate’s caravan pass. Romney spoke with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and explained that he had come down to listen, learn, lure some media coverage and make sure “the people around the country know that people down here need help.”
For Obama, it was a day of official events, not campaigning, although with 67 days to go until Election Day there is little distinction.
Surrounded by troops in camouflage, he appeared as commander in chief more than candidate, announcing steps to help war veterans cope with mental health struggles. Yet the visit also served as an election-year reminder that he closed out the Iraq war and has pledged an end to the Afghanistan war at the end of 2014.
“We’re not just ending these wars,” he said. “We’re doing it in a way that keeps America safe and makes America stronger, and that includes our military.”
The No. 2 men on the ticket covered other electoral ground.
In Richmond, Va., vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan warned that without Romney in charge, “our children are going to get a diminished future.”
Further north, Biden was at a union hall in Lordstown, Ohio, directing his aim at Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, and other Republicans for having voted for measures that drove up the debt they criticize. “I mean who did it? How did we get here? Look, there is a lot they didn’t tell you at their convention.”
The economy has shown varying signs of trouble and hope, but is largely expected to stay as is through the election and unlikely to change the equation for Obama and Romney. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Friday pledged more action to provide a jolt, but did not get specific.
Obama chose North Carolina for his 2012 convention as a way to cement support in a state he surprisingly won in 2008, but he trails Romney there. The candidates continue to put their time and money into the states they consider in play, from Nevada and Colorado out West to Florida, Virginia and Ohio in the East.
Daly reported from Fort Bliss. Associated Press writers Nancy Benac in Washington and Kasie Hunt in Jean Lafitte, La. contributed to this report.
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