CHANTILLY, Va. — Mitt Romney tried to pivot the election conversation back to the economy, using a campaign stop here to attack President Obama's record.
Standing in front of a dozen female business owners in the warehouse of Exhibit Edge, an exhibit design firm in the Washington suburbs, Romney argued Americans are ready for change.
"Americans are tired of being tired of this economy and this president, and they want a real change," he said to applause.
His campaign also released a Web video Wednesday morning, attacking Obama's economic record as the president returned from a surprise trip to Afghanistan to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden.
The switch to foreign policy on Tuesday had shown the advantages of the incumbency — Obama made a secret trip on Air Force One and addressed Americans from Kabul — thereby dominating the news cycle — while Romney met with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and had lunch with New York firefighters.
The former Massachusetts governor also had to deal with questions on how he would have handled the information about bin Laden's whereabouts.
But the switch back to the economy on Wednesday allowed Romney to focus on his strengths as a businessman — a core message of his campaign.
His stop in Virginia also allowed him to put down his marker in a swing state ahead of Obama, who's holding a campaign rally in the state on Saturday. The campaign is billing the event as the official start of the president's reelection bid.
Virginia is crucial to Romney's election strategy. The state went for Obama by 6 percentage points in 2008, making him the first Democrat to win it since President Johnson in 1964, and a recent poll from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling had Obama with an 8-point lead over the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney said the Obama White House is "the most anti-business administration" since President Carter's, and blasted Obama's proposed "Buffett Rule" that would establish a minimum income tax rate on wealthy individuals, arguing it would hurt small business.
"This is a business that’s taxed at the individual tax rate," he said, gesturing around the room. "This is a direct attack on small business and it's got to end."
He also attacked Obama for working closely with unions. While Virginia has trended Democratic in the last decade, largely due to suburban growth around Washington D.C., Virginia is a "right to work" state and unions are not as popular, or nearly as powerful, there as in some other swing states like Ohio.
"The attempt to change the playing field between management and labor is particularly frightening to small business," Romney said, adding that Obama's policies had "made it back-breaking for many small businesses and made it harder for people to regroup" coming out of the recession.
Romney needs to keep Obama's margins down in Northern Virginia to have a strong shot at winning the state, and that means appealing to more socially moderate, fiscally conservative female voters in the state.
Romney's wife, Ann, made that point explicitly. Many Democrats have argued Romney's policies amount to a "war on women," which the campaign has pushed back on strongly. Ann Romney has been a leading surrogate for the Romney campaign with female voters.
"We appreciate all these women being here," she said while introducing her husband. "It is a great country, and it's exciting to see what women can do."
Ann Romney then said she'd met many women who were "extremely worried about their future" because of the current economic climate and the national debt.
Romney's upcoming campaign schedule shows Virginia's importance: On Thursday he will campaign in the Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia, then return next weekend to give the convocation at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who's said to be a possible vice presidential pick, is scheduled to campaign with him.
Obama has also shown how important the state is to his election strategy with the planned rally in Richmond on Saturday.
A dozen or so Democrats organized by the Democratic National Committee protested outside Romney's event and took a shot at the former governor's record.
"It's ironic that he criticizes Obama. When you look at his business record, what he did as a person who would take over corporations — some went into bankruptcy, some into debt, people lost their jobs and he walked off with a profit," said Virginia state Delegate Charniele Herring (D), who also said Romney had left Massachusetts with "the highest per capita debt in the nation" and described Romney's economic record as "abysmal."
— This story was last updated at 12:07 p.m.