Obama, Romney Duel Politics In Battleground Ohio

President Barack Obama traveled to Cleveland Thursday afternoon to talk about the economy. His GOP challenger for the White House, Mitt Romney, was 250 miles away in Cincinnati, talking about the same thing. Audie Cornish talks to Ari Shapiro and Scott Horsley.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. This afternoon in the election year battleground state of Ohio, a strikingly orchestrated duel of political messages has been taking place. In Cleveland, President Obama delivered a speech on the economy. In Cincinnati, his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, was doing the same thing. Consider it a long-distance debate of sorts. And we're going to hear about how both campaigns are trying to win Ohio's electoral votes.

NPR's Scott Horsley was with the president, and NPR's Ari Shapiro is traveling with Governor Romney. Hello to both of you.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So, Scott, let's start with you. There's a lot of buildup for Mr. Obama's speech today, but not really any new policy proposals. So what's he trying to do here?

HORSLEY: Well, the president is trying to frame the November election as a choice between two very different economic visions. And he's in sort of a challenging spot because people are understandably not satisfied with the state of the economy now: unemployment, nationally, running at 8.2 percent; job growth over the last few months slumping. So the president is saying in effect don't just vote yes or no on the economy as it stands right now, but look at the direction in which it's headed down the road a few years and where it would be under my policies versus the policies of Governor Romney.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: At stake is not simply a choice between two candidates or two political parties but between two paths for our country. And while there are many things to discuss in this campaign, nothing is more important than an honest debate about where these two paths would lead us.

HORSLEY: And the president introduced a new idea that this debate has really resulted in sort of a national stalemate, which is a way for him to say, look, we haven't had the benefit of my policies because my policies have been stymied by Republicans in Congress. And it's up to the people, he said, to end that stalemate.

CORNISH: Now, the tepid economic recovery has been a challenge for President Obama's reelection hopes, but I'm gathering that the picture in Ohio is actually somewhat better.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. The argument that the economy has improved under this president is easier to make in this state than it is elsewhere in the country. Statewide in Ohio, the unemployment rate is about seven and a half percent, just below that, down from more than 10 1/2 percent in the early months of this president's term.

And the picture here in Cleveland is even better. I spoke to a number of people in the audience today who either are current or former auto workers, and they're very grateful to the president's help in rescuing Chrysler and General Motors. So while there's still a lot of economic distress even here, people might be more willing to accept the argument that at least the president's moving things in the right direction.

CORNISH: Now, Ari, Mitt Romney was in southwestern Ohio, which is generally pretty Republican territory. So what was his message?

SHAPIRO: Well, you heard Scott talk about how President Obama described this election as a choice between Romney or the president. Romney would rather this be a referendum than a choice. He says this is about the last three years, whether you give the economy a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

He didn't speak quite as long as the president did, but he hit the president right out of the gate saying, don't listen to the rhetoric, look at the record.

MITT ROMNEY: Now, you may have heard that President Obama is on the other side of the state and he's going to be delivering a speech on the economy. He's doing that because he hasn't delivered a recovery for the economy.

SHAPIRO: So Mitt Romney is betting that people are not satisfied with what they've seen despite the positive economic numbers in Ohio that you and Scott just talked about and that they will blame the president for that slow recovery. He later said in his speech, if I have a doctor or a house painter who gets a job wrong the first time, I don't give them a second chance to try to get it right.

CORNISH: Is this the beginning of a big campaign swing for Romney?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Tomorrow morning, he launches a five-day, six-state bus tour focusing on small towns. All of these are states that President Obama won in 2008 where Mitt Romney thinks he has a chance this time. He's going to kick off the tour in the farm in New Hampshire where he officially launched his presidential campaign one year ago.

And this is the kind of, you know, apple pie and coffee, shaking hands and visiting small towns tour that he really hasn't done since early in the primary. So it's a different kind of campaigning that we haven't seen a lot of recently, and it'll be interesting to watch as it unfolds.

CORNISH: We've got a long summer ahead of us, Ari. How hard are the candidates going after one another at this early stage?

SHAPIRO: Well, frankly, Mitt Romney has been going after President Obama pretty intensely from the very beginning because his message is you should vote me into office out of dissatisfaction with the Obama record of the last three years. And I think President Obama is starting to ramp up his criticism of Mitt Romney a little more than we've seen recently.

CORNISH: Scott, what do you see from your view on the campaign trail?

HORSLEY: Well, the president's been on the ropes a little bit the last few weeks, beginning with another very weak jobs report on the first day of this month and then his gaffe last week when he misspoke and said that in contrast to the big layoffs we've seen in the public sector, with teachers and firefighters losing their jobs, the private sector's doing fine.

He's acknowledged that that was an overstatement. And today, he talked about all the letters and the voices that he hears from people who are still struggling to find work or struggling to pay the bills or struggling with an underwater mortgage. So he's certainly acknowledged the tough times here.

But he said, look, Mitt Romney doesn't have a plan to fix that, and simply attacking my performance is not a plan that the American people should put their faith in.

CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley in Cleveland and NPR's Ari Shapiro in Cincinnati. Thank you to you both.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Audie.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Audie.

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