DES MOINES, Iowa - Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are making the hard sell to working-class and women voters while raising the volume of their criticism to cast the other guy as an extremist.
Romney's team thrust welfare into the campaign with an ad claiming that Obama planned to dole out taxpayer dollars to anyone, even those not trying to find work. For his part, Obama was to appear Wednesday with Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University student who became a flashpoint for women's health and, by proxy, abortion rights. Obama's message: Romney would take away women's health insurance benefits won by Democrats.
Romney is set for a Wednesday morning rally in Des Moines before flying back to New Jersey to raise more money for his already sizable campaign accounts. Obama is heading westward to Colorado to make the case to voters, especially women, that he should be re-elected in November.
Romney charged that Obama was undoing welfare reforms President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996 by offering waivers to states. His campaign sees Obama's decision as an opportunity to argue that the president is a liberal who wants to give the poor a free pass at the expense of the middle class.
White House spokesman Jay Carney blasted Romney's assertions as "categorically false and blatantly dishonest." The White House said Obama wanted to give states the flexibility they had been seeking to tailor the program to their needs.
Some conservatives fear the increased latitude could allow states to get around the work requirements, which were a key element of the welfare overhaul under Clinton. But the former president himself weighed in, saying in a statement that the assertion in Romney's ad was "not true" and the ad misleading.
The welfare issue as pushed by the Romney campaign appeared to be aimed at blue-collar whites in a weak economy and suggested that Obama might be gaining ground politically with his position on taxes.
The setting for the comments mattered, too. Romney was campaigning in Iowa, where six electoral votes are up for grabs. Strategists from both parties envision a close election in the state that, in some ways, launched both Romney and Obama.
Four years ago, Obama won Iowa's leadoff Democratic caucuses en route to his party's presidential nomination. He went on to carry Iowa in the general election against Republican Sen. John McCain.
Yet when Obama won the state four years ago, Democrats had a 105,000-voter registration advantage. Republicans now hold a 21,589 voter advantage and are more bullish about their chances.
Romney, too, won his party's Iowa caucuses - at least for a while. Election officials later reversed the call and gave Sen. Rick Santorum the upset. By then, Romney had momentum after another strong showing in New Hampshire.
Obama plans to spend three days in Iowa next week, a signal that his advisers see the Midwestern state as fertile soil for his political message, especially his support for wind energy. Wind turbines dot the Iowa horizon and employ thousands of voters. Romney often mocks Obama's support for so-called green energy projects, a position that puts him at odds with Republican leaders in the state.
Obama is launching a two-day, four-city swing through Colorado on Wednesday. His events are expected to focus on the economy, including his call for Congress to extend tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year while letting the cuts for higher-income earners expire.
A new Quinnipiac University poll shows Obama and Romney tied among voters in Colorado households earning between $30,000 and $50,000 per year - an important target. Obama leads among voters with lower incomes; Romney is favored by those making more.
Obama planned to emphasize women's health issues at his first event in Denver. The crowd at the Auraria Event Center was expected to be predominantly women. The president was to be introduced by Fluke, the Georgetown University student who gained notoriety after conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called her a slut because she supports the Obama health care law's requirement that insurance companies cover contraception.
The president has been running television advertisements in Colorado highlighting his health care overhaul's benefits for women and warning that those benefits could be taken away if Romney wins. On Wednesday the campaign released a video in which actress Elizabeth Banks describes her personal experience with Planned Parenthood and criticizes Romney for promising to eliminate its federal funding.
Both Obama and Romney see women - particularly suburban women from their 30s to their 50s - as crucial to their victory in Colorado, where polls show the candidates in a tight contest for the state's nine electoral votes.
Obama has had the edge over female voters nationally and is focusing on a particularly promising subset: college-educated women. Fifty-five percent of college-educated women preferred Obama in a June Associated Press-GfK poll, while 40 percent preferred Romney.
Obama has been a frequent visitor to Colorado this summer, but not for purely political purposes. He made a quick trip to Colorado Springs in late June to view wildfire damage and meet with first responders battling the most devastating fires in the state's history. Two weeks later, he returned to meet with the grief-stricken families and survivors of the movie theater shooting in Aurora.
Both trips gave Obama an opportunity to assume the role of consoler in chief and show swing-state voters leadership in a crisis.
This week, Obama's focus will be solely on rounding up votes in the tightly contested Western battleground.
Both Colorado and Iowa, with huge swaths of independent-minded voters, hold significant political weight in November. In a tight election, their electoral votes could make the difference between a win or a loss. Obama won both in 2008.