By Amie Parnes and Carlo Munoz - 05/05/12 06:12 PM EDT
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The gloves are off.
Opening what is likely to be a bitter and grueling election, President Obama held his first official campaign rally here in the Buckeye State, cranking up his populist pitch while slamming his likely opponent Mitt Romney and congressional Republicans.
Speaking six months and a day before Election Day, a fiery and combative Obama, his sleeves rolled up, touted a “forward-looking America” while taking a series of shots at his likely opponent before a raucous audience in this swing state.
“We’ve come too far to abandon the change we have fought for,” Obama said speaking before a large banner “Forward,” which has emerged as the president’s re-election slogan. “We have to move forward.”
He would follow up the performance later Saturday in the swing-state of Virginia, with a similar rally at Virginia Commonwealth University, where the theme of looking "forward" continued to rely on comparisons to the past.
Hitting the stump with first lady Michelle Obama — who introduced him — the president mentioned his almost certain opponent Mitt Romney by name, a practice he had largely avoided until Saturday.
In his speech, he complimented Romney for being a successful businessman. But he also knocked him for being an out-of-touch billionaire who “has drawn the wrong lessons from those experiences” in the business world.
“Corporations aren’t people,” Obama said, slamming Romney’s previous comments. “People are people.”
The speech comes on the heels of a jobs report released Friday, which found that only 115,000 jobs were added in April. At the same time, the economy continues to struggle after the deepest recession in decades, which has left millions unemployed and a jobless rate hovering above 8 percent.
Obama was met by an enthusiastic crowd at the university, where supporters carried signs that read “Forward.”
Conjuring up memories of his successful 2008 campaign, Obama emerged on the stage to the same U2 song, “City of Lights,” that played before he accepted the Democratic nomination in Denver almost four years ago. And like 2008, the crowd chanted “Fired Up, Ready to Go,” which became a campaign mantra during the president’s first bid.
But the arena was not a sell out. The 14,000 in attendence left empty sections in the upper deck of the 18,300 seat arena, a different image than four years ago when the president — then a fresh-faced senator who changed the political landscape — addressed sell out crowds across the country.
Still, the rally was quite the spectacle, complete with a jumbo video screen, which showed video clips of 2008 and highlights of Obama’s first term — including the moment where he sang Al Green.
During the speech, time and again, he sought to portray Romney as having starkly different views on issues ranging from the economy to the war in Afghanistan.
But the focus was on the economy, the key issue in this election. Obama said he wanted to pay down the debt in a way that is “balanced and responsible.” And he trumpeted his support for the middle class by saying, “I refuse to pay for another millionaire’s tax cut.”
Romney, who did not have any public events on Saturday, quickly slammed the president through a spokesman in a campaign statement saying Obama, “still needs to answer for the promises he made to Ohioans nearly four years ago.”
“From skyrocketing gas prices to increasing insurance premiums, President Obama’s economic policies have failed Ohio families and demonstrated that this president does not have what it takes to get our economy moving again,” Ryan Williams, a Romney campaign spokesman said.
Firing back at such claims, Obama argued Romney's fiscal policies were, in essence, the same that led to the ongoing economic crisis. Republicans are hoping "the same bad ideas will lead to a different result or you won't remember the last time we tried it their way," Obama said. "We were there. We remember."
The president also vowed to put half the savings generated by ending the war in Afghanistan to reducing the national debt. The other half, he said, should ould be funneled toward infrastructure programs across the country. "The nation we need to build is our own," Obama said, taking a jab at the previous administration's nation-building strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"That is the choice in this election, to rebuild America," he added.
Obama stood firm behind his decision to pull all American troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Romney has hammered the president for setting a withdrawal timeline, arguing that a withdrawal should be determined by the progress of the Afghan government. "I have [set a deadline] and I intend to keep it," Obama said.
Obama carried Ohio in 2008 with 52 percent of the vote. But since then, the GOP has made up lost ground, winning five seats in the House of Representatives, the governor’s office and a string of seats statewide. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows that Obama holds a very small lead over Romney 44-42 percent in a state the campaign desperately wants to win.
The president, who has visited the state 21 times since he was elected president, demonstrated just how much he wants to put the state in the win column again on Saturday.
“Barack needs your help. He needs your help,” Michelle Obama told the crowd on Saturday. “He needs every single one of you.”
Throughout his speech, Obama acknowledged there is more work to be done.
“Are we satisfied? Of course not,” he said. “The housing market is still weak, the deficit is too high.”
But he added, “On issue after issue, America can’t spend the next four years going backward.”
“We are not turning back the clock,” he said. “We are moving forward.”
Obama appeared before yet another jam-packed arena in Richmond, Virginia, later in the day on Saturday. The president holds a sizeable lead in Virginia, another swing state, according to a Washington Post poll released Friday. That poll shows Obama leading Romney 51 percent to 44 percent.
Obama acknowledged that the “this election will be closer than the last.” And he called on supporters to help him seek re-election.
“Nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change,” he said. “We are still fired up. We are still ready to go.”
But the president reminded the crowd that this election season would be a much tougher slog than four years ago.
The "flood of negative ads" and mud slinging by Romney's camp in the run up to November "will be more ... than the last campaign," the Obama said.
Obama's campaign has a large fundraising advantage over the Romney campaign, but the super-PACs backing Romney have raise far more than the independent groups backing Obama.
"We are going to win this thing the old fashioned way, door by door, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood," he said.
Updated at 2:40 p.m.