VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — President Barack Obama pledged to create many more jobs and "make the middle class secure again" in a campaign-closing appeal Thursday — more than five weeks before Election Day — to voters already casting ballots in large numbers.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney, focusing on threats beyond American shores, accused the commander in chief of backing dangerous cuts in defense spending.
"The idea of cutting our military is unthinkable and devastating. And when I become president we will not," declared the challenger, struggling to reverse a slide in opinion polls.
Romney and Obama campaigned a few hundred miles apart in Virginia, 40 days before their long race ends. They'll be in much closer quarters next Wednesday in Denver, for the first of three presidential debates on the campaign calendar and perhaps the challenger's best remaining chance to change the trajectory of the campaign.
In a race where the economy is the dominant issue, there was a fresh sign of national weakness as the Commerce Department lowered its earlier estimate of tepid growth last spring. Romney and his allies seized on the news as evidence that Obama's policies aren't working.
There was good news for the president in the form of a survey by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation suggesting he has gained ground among older voters after a monthlong ad war over Republican plans for Medicare.
Campaigning in Virginia Beach, Obama said, "It's time for a new economic patriotism, an economic patriotism rooted in the belief that growing our economy begins with a strong and thriving middle class." It was a line straight from the two-minute television commercial his campaign released overnight.
He said that if re-elected he would back policies to create a million new manufacturing jobs, help businesses double exports and give tax breaks to companies that "invest in America, not ship jobs overseas." He pledged to cut oil imports in half while doubling the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks, make sure there are 100,000 new teachers trained in math and science, cut the growth of college tuition in half and expand student aid "so more Americans can afford it."
Romney campaigned at an American Legion hall in Springfield, Va., a suburb of Washington, accusing Obama of supporting cuts in the defense budget that would be detrimental to the nation's military readiness.
"The world is not a safe place. It remains dangerous," he said, referring to North Korea, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. "The idea of cutting our military commitment by a trillion dollars over this decade is unthinkable and devastating."
". . . And the idea of shrinking our active duty personnel by 100,000 or 200,000 — I want to add 100,000 to active duty personnel."