TAMPA — President Barack Obama used the first Florida rally of his 2012 campaign on Friday to blast Mitt Romney as an "outsourcing pioneer" and promised a second term focused on helping the middle class more than the wealthiest Americans.
"Since the last time I ran, my hair is a little grayer, and I know we've been through some tough times together," Obama said. "But I told you back in 2008 that I would always tell you what I thought, that I would wake up every day thinking of you and fighting for you. Tampa, I have kept that promise. I still believe in you. I need you to still believe in me."
He drew an adoring and energetic crowd of nearly 3,000 people to Hillsborough Community College, receiving cheers of support after almost every sentence he uttered. Some people arrived at the HCC campus as early as 7:30 in the morning, camped out with folding chairs and deli sandwiches.
As he entered the HCC gymnasium, Obama tripped on his way to the stage but quipped, "I was so fired up I missed a stair."
Before leaving Tampa, the president held a private fundraising reception with about 25 people who paid $20,000 apiece.
In Tampa and at an earlier speech to Hispanic leaders in Orlando, the president cast the election as a choice between starkly different visions: One approach would focus largely on the wealthiest Americans, and the other, his, more on the middle class.
"They want to roll back regulations, and give insurance companies and credit card companies and mortgage lenders even more power to do as they please," the president told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "They want to spend $5 trillion on new tax cuts — including a 25 percent tax cut for every millionaire in the country. And they want to pay for it by raising middle-class taxes and gutting middle-class priorities like education and training and health care and medical research. And that's it. That's it. That's their economic plan."
Obama said he'd reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next four years. He said he had a plan that will "cut spending we can't afford, strengthen programs like Medicare for the long haul, reform our tax code in a way that's fair and responsible."
In Tampa, he seized on a Washington Post article that the venture capital firm Romney used to lead, Bain Capital, invested in companies that specialized in sending jobs to low-wage countries. The president noted that he is calling for an end to tax breaks for shipping jobs and plants overseas.
"Not only does Gov. Romney disagree with this plan, today it was reported in the Washington Post that the companies his firm owned were 'pioneers' in the outsourcing of American jobs to places like China and India. Pioneers," Obama said. "Tampa, we don't need an outsourcing pioneer in the Oval Office. We need a president who will fight for American jobs and American manufacturing. And that's what my plan will do."
The Romney campaign dismissed the attack as an effort to shift attention away from the poor economy under the president's leadership.
"Mitt Romney has a proven record of job creation in the private sector, and he has been praised by prominent Democrats like President Clinton for his 'sterling' business career,'' said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "If President Obama had even half of Mitt Romney's record on jobs, he'd be running for re-election on it. But President Obama has the worst record on jobs and the economy of any president in modern history, and he is desperate to distract from his shameful legacy of higher taxes, skyrocketing deficits and less jobs."
Florida is a must-win state for Romney, and the average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics shows a tight race with Obama leading by less than 2 percentage points. Hispanic voters could be a key factor in Florida and several other battleground states, which is why Romney addressed NALEO on Thursday, followed by Obama on Friday.
The president highlighted to the overwhelmingly Democratic group his support for the DREAM Act, giving the children of illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship and his recent declaration that he would stop deporting many young illegal immigrants.
"I refused to keep looking young people in the eye, deserving young people in the eye, and tell them, 'Tough luck, the politics is too hard,' " Obama said, blaming Republicans for blocking comprehensive immigration policy reform.
Former Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, a leading advocate for immigration reform, said he was turned off by Obama's partisanship.
"The president, sadly enough, politicized the whole thing. The president has never put forward a proposal on immigration," said Martinez, who also addressed the group. "He says he acted for the DREAM Act kids. If it was right to do it, and he had the authority to do it, why wait until four months before the elections?"
A poll by Latino Decisions and America's Voice released Friday found Hispanic voters in Florida, favor Obama over Romney 53 percent to 37 percent. Fifty percent said they were more enthusiastic about Obama since he announced he would ease deportations of young undocumented residents.
The president, who returns to Florida on Tuesday for a fundraiser in Miami, told his Tampa Bay supporters to prepare for a rough campaign.
"All that money will be spent on ads that say the economy is bad and that I'm in over my head, or I think everyone is doing just fine," Obama said. "They will have ad after ad after ad. And all of them will have scary voices. And pictures of me looking old and broke down," he said to laughter.
The ads may be effective, he told the crowd, so he needs help countering them.
"I need you to hit the doors, make phone calls, get on Facebook, get on Twitter," he said.
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.