JACKSONVILLE — Four years after running against the teetering economy, President Barack Obama returned to Jacksonville on Thursday, the same place he used to draw a stark contrast to John McCain, who in 2008 memorably told a Jacksonville audience after the fall of Lehman Brothers that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong."
This time, Obama deflected criticism of a national economy still staggering under his watch and told a much smaller crowd that Wall Street's "culture of anything goes" and the nation's record debt are among the factors that continue to threaten the future of the middle class.
"We are here today because we recognize that this basic bargain, this essence of who we are … is at risk like never before,'' he said. "What's standing in our way is not technical solutions …what's standing in our way is our politics.''
In his 27-minute speech, delayed by an hour because of bad weather, he appealed to the cheering crowd to work for him, saying the opposition "will spend more money than we've ever seen in our lifetime on ads that same the same thing — the economy is not where it should be and it's all Obama's fault."
He called the tactic a "plan to win an election but they can't hide the fact that's not a plan to create jobs. That's not a plan to revive the economy."
He revived his familiar criticism of Romney's plan for a "25 percent tax cut for every millionaire in the country" by gutting job training, and college aid, rolling back health care reform and "forcing more than 2,000 Floridians to pay more for their prescription drugs."
In 2008, a packed and enthusiastic crowd of 9,000 greeted Obama at Veteran's Arena. This year, the number of supporters was estimated at 3,000 on the first of a two-day swing through the nation's largest battleground state.
Obama has sunk as much as $17 million in Florida ads — mostly negative — but he remains statistically tied with Romney in the Sunshine State and the rest of the nation, according to a batch of state and national polls.
Voters are more pessimistic than in 2008, they increasingly believe the president bears some blame for the bad economy and Obama isn't offering up much in the way of a hope-and-change campaign.
"Back then, it was a positive, message-oriented campaign," said Brad Coker, a Duval County resident and state pollster with Mason Dixon Polling & Research Inc. "This is now slash and burn. And it doesn't get people as excited."
But going negative helps win races. And Obama appears ready to keep slugging away at Romney during his latest foray in Florida.
Obama's campaign and Democrats have bashed Romney for failing to release multiple years of his tax returns and for layoffs that occurred during his time heading the Bain Capital private-equity firm.
In return, Romney and Republicans have openly started to accuse Obama of having a "foreign" mind-set for what they say is his hostility to private enterprise.
Obama appears ready to put aside attacking Romney's business record today in favor of a message more tailored for Florida's seniors.
Obama's campaign released a "report" today that claims Romney will "end Medicare as we know it," raise the tax burden for the middle class, force seniors to pay more for prescription drugs and repeal health care reforms designed to bring solvency to Medicare in the next decade.
The message could have particular relevance later in the evening when Obama speaks at Century Village West Palm Beach, the heavily Democratic retirement haven.
But Obama has his own troubles when it comes to seniors and health care. They generally don't like the president's health care plan, which trims $500 billion from Medicare Advantage over a decade.
About 52 percent of likely Florida voters view Obama's federal health care law unfavorably while 43 percent view it favorably, according to a Mason-Dixon poll conducted last week by Coker's Mason Dixon Polling & Research Inc on behalf of the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Central Florida News 13 and Bay News 9.
Seniors are the least-likely to support the plan, the poll shows. Exactly half of Florida voters want the health care law repealed; 43 percent want to keep it
Overall, the poll showed Obama getting 46 percent of the vote and Romney 45 percent in the Florida poll. That's well within the poll's 3.5 percent error margin.
Those results closely mirror three national polls released this week that essentially show a tie.
A National Public Radio survey showed Obama leading 47-45 percent; an ABC/Washington Post poll showed Obama and Romney tied at 47 percent each; and a CBS/New York Times poll had Romney at 47 percent and Obama at 46 percent nationally.
In its analysis, the New York Times noted that Obama's message is in danger of being drowned out by the news of the bad economy and a persistent pessimism among voters that results from it all.
A large number, 64 percent, said Obama's policies contributed to the economic downturn, according to the New York Times poll. In last week's Times/Herald/Bay News 9 poll, 41 percent said Obama's policies have worsened the economy and 35 percent say they have improved it.
In a stark reminder of Obama's struggles managing the economy, he'll wrap up his Florida tour in Fort Myers, where he unveiled his now-unpopular stimulus plan at the height of his popularity in 2009.
Republicans dismiss the stimulus as a failure and point out that some stimulus money helped fund businesses tied to Obama donors. A Congressional Budget Office report, though, said the stimulus helped the economy. However, it failed to keep unemployment below 8 percent, as Obama's team had promised.
This election season, Republicans are bashing Obama for saying the private sector is doing just fine and for suggesting that private business owners aren't solely responsible for their successes. Democrats say Obama is being taken out of context, a similar complaint John McCain made in 2008 when his words were used against him when he said in Jacksonville that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong."
Black turnout in 2008 was decisive for Obama and accounted for nearly a quarter of the vote in Duval County. This year, black voters are expected to again flock to the polls. One major black figure from Jacksonville — the city's first African-American mayor, Alvin Brown — is keeping his distance from the campaign and wasn't in his hometown to greet the president.
But Coker, the Mason Dixon pollster, said the total turnout could be lower in Jacksonville and elsewhere for Democrats and black voters specifically.
"After three or four years, the thrill does wear off," Coker said. "They probably won't come out in the numbers they did in 2008, but there's lots of time for this campaign to play out."