President Barack Obama on Monday intensified a potentially crucial phase of his re-election campaign with an effort to define Mitt Romney in negative terms and with a targeted appeal to three core voting blocs: women, young people, and gays and lesbians.
First Obama tried to tarnish Mitt Romney as a corporate titan who got rich by cutting rather than creating jobs. His campaign launched a new website, TV ad and online video including interviews with onetime workers at a Kansas City, Mo., steel mill that Romney's former private equity firm, Bain Capital, failed to successfully restructure.
"It was like a vampire. They came in and sucked the life out of us," says steelworker Jack Cobb.
Another worker says, "Bain Capital walked away with a lot of money that they made off this plant. We view Mitt Romney as a job destroyer."
Countering the criticism, Romney's campaign said the former Massachusetts governor welcomes an election-season conversation with Obama about jobs. Romney alone helped spur more public and private jobs than Obama has for the nation, the Republican campaign argues.
How the public comes to view Bain, a Boston-based company Romney led for 15 years, is critical to the former Massachusetts governor's chances in November. He has pointed to his time at Bain and the business experience he gained there as the singular reason he is the right man to fix the nation's troubled economy.
"That's the heart of his campaign," said Tad Devine, who has helped craft anti-Bain ads before. "And if you undercut that, there aren't a lot of places left for Romney to go."
Also Monday, Obama gave a commencement address at Barnard College, a women's college, and taped an interview on The View that will air today.
He urged Barnard graduates to fight for their place at "the head of the table" and help lead a country still battered by economic woes toward brighter days. "I believe that the women of this generation will help lead the way," he said.
Later in the evening at a fundraiser, Obama defended his view that gay couples should have the right to marry, saying that the country has never gone wrong when it "expanded rights and responsibilities to everybody."
"That doesn't weaken families. That strengthens families," he told gay and lesbian supporters and others at a fundraiser hosted by singer Ricky Martin and the LGBT Leadership Council. "It's the right thing to do."
Romney delivered a commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Saturday in which he emphasized that he believes marriage is between "one man and one woman."
Yet Monday's dreary global financial backdrop set the stage for a sharp debate in the coming weeks between the candidates over their competing economic philosophies, and it highlighted the public's unhappiness with big business and government institutions alike.
Romney is set to deliver a speech today in Iowa on reducing the huge federal debt.
Romney and Obama alike contend that in a nation where unemployment is hovering around 8 percent, voters will choose a president based on economic arguments. Obama is trying to persuade voters to stick with him as he heralds an economic rebound, as sluggish as it is. Romney counters that only he — with his deep background in business — knows how to jump-start the nation's job market.
The two men have little in common in their views of how to get the country moving.
Obama has pumped money into the economy to stimulate growth and has cut some taxes though he also advocates raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Romney argues that lower taxes across the board and fewer government restrictions are the answer. Both are trying to win over an electorate that is furious with Wall Street and distrustful of corporations, and Obama's new campaign effort was squarely aimed at working-class voters, a group that has been reluctant to support the president in the past.
Obama's TV ad was scheduled to run in five battleground states. Romney's campaign, meanwhile, aggressively worked behind the scenes to counter the Obama campaign's Bain message.
The Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.