Middle East, Economy Dominate Campaign Trail

President Obama is taking a break from big campaign rallies Friday, while Mitt Romney is stumping for votes outside of Cleveland. On Thursday, both men were on the campaign trail: Romney in Virginia and Obama in Colorado. They were talking mostly about the economy, but also about this week's events in the Middle East.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns outside Cleveland, Ohio today. He's in a state that's widely considered essential for him to win - a state where recent surveys show him trailing President Obama by single digits.

Now, the president holds no major campaign events today, but both men were in swing states yesterday. Both talked about the economy and both also addressed this week's dramatic events in the Arab world.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It was the perfect fall day for an outdoor rally in Colorado, with crisp, cool air and bright blue skies. The flag outside the Denver Federal Center was flying at half staff, though. Tuesday's attack in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans cast a shadow over the president's event.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, let me say at the outset that obviously our hearts are heavy this week.

HORSLEY: At a campaign rally in Golden, Colorado, just west of Denver, President Obama praised Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues - along with all the others who serve in dangerous places, in and out of uniform to advance the interests of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: They do an outstanding job every single day without a lot of fanfare. So what I want all of you to know is we are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice.

(APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

HORSLEY: Attorney General Eric Holder is cutting short a trip to Qatar in order to supervise the attack investigation. Mr. Obama also spoke by telephone this week with the leaders of Libya, Egypt and Yemen, and he got a briefing from his national security team right after yesterday's rally.

For the president, it was another day of juggling his duties as candidate and commander-in-chief. Rally-goer Merle Glenn of Littleton, Colorado was happy with the balance he struck.

MERLE GLENN: I'm glad that he decided to come on and speak with us and not stop campaigning, because I think the message that he brings us here today is going to bring us as much peace as if he was from Washington saying it.

HORSLEY: Glenn also took Mitt Romney to task for criticizing the administration during the early hours of the Middle Eastern attacks. Romney had issued a statement late Tuesday saying it was disgraceful that the U.S. embassy in Cairo appeared early on to sympathize with the attackers.

Although the White House and the State Department had their own problems with the embassy's response, Glenn says it was inappropriate for Romney to weigh in the way he did.

GLENN: It's not a thing to play politics with. When we lose lives, people that are in government service, that's not a time to play politics. We need to pull together.

HORSLEY: Romney was heckled at his own campaign rally in Northern Virginia, by a man who also accused him of politicizing the Libyan attack. Romney was momentarily rattled, as he tried to honor the fallen diplomats.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

MITT ROMNEY: I would - I would offer a moment of silence, but one gentleman doesn't want to be silent. So we're going to keep on going.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: USA, USA...

HORSLEY: Romney abruptly shifted gears, turning to new Census data to attack the president's handling of the economy. Median household income fell last year, as it has in seven of the last 10 years. At the same time, income for the nation's wealthiest households rose. Romney says Mr. Obama has no solution for this widening income gap.

ROMNEY: How in the world he can go before a Democrat convention and speak to the nation and offer nothing but more of the same is beyond me. We want real change. I'm going to bring real change and get America working again.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HORSLEY: Virginia's unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country: below six percent. Colorado's jobless rate is closer to the national average: above eight percent.

Back in Colorado, though, Mr. Obama scoffed at the Republicans' ideas for fixing that, by lowering taxes, especially on the wealthy, and by doing away with government regulations.

OBAMA: I don't think rolling back regulations on Wall Street are going to help the small businesswoman in Jefferson County or laid-off construction workers that are trying to get back to work. Golden, we have - we have been there. We tried that. It didn't work. We're not going back. We are not going back.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HORSLEY: An Obama volunteer, who's been busy talking to voters here, says many are skeptical of both candidates' claims and waiting to see what they say to each other when they're face to face.

The two men's first debate will be here, in Colorado, in just under three weeks.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Denver.

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