ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney, their contest defined anew by joblessness, are seeking to frame the campaign on their own terms. Romney was concentrating on the economy while Obama sought to play to his strengths, with top aides all but daring their challenger to engage in a debate over Medicare.
Obama was kicking off a two-day bus tour in Florida on Saturday, campaigning in a state with the highest elderly population and an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent, higher than the national average. Romney was on his way to high-stakes Virginia, where low unemployment and a Republican governor serve to make his case for change.
As both candidates enter the final two-month sprint to the election, Romney is casting Obama as an inept steward of the nation's post-recession recovery. It's a portrayal Obama has been fighting for months as the unemployment rate sticks stubbornly above 8 percent.
On Friday, the government reported that employers added just 96,000 jobs in August and that, aided by frustrated job hunters giving up, the jobless rate dropped from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent.
"He gave them no confidence whatsoever that he has any plan to make America's economy start to create the jobs it ought to be creating," Romney said Friday, critiquing Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Obama is countering by presenting himself as a champion of the middle class and by repeatedly decrying Romney's economic remedies as failed throwbacks that would further endanger the economy.
But Obama is also eager to turn the debate away from the economy and on to issues that favor Democrats. Obama repeatedly reminds audiences that Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, has proposed to overhaul Medicare, the government health program for older Americans, with a voucher-like system that could cost beneficiaries more out of their pocket.
Republicans say that Romney has been able to parry the Medicare argument but that it takes Romney out of his economic focus, a clear Obama goal.
"If they want to have a discussion about who do you trust on Medicare for the next 60 days as their central argument, you know we ought to send them an in-kind contribution," Obama senior adviser David Plouffe said Friday. "We're happy to have that discussion. We think people trust the president more on Medicare."
Obama's team says the Medicare argument could help attract undecided voters approaching retirement age, more so than elderly voters whose political views are already set.
Aiming at that group Friday in New Hampshire, Obama said: "I won't turn Medicare into a voucher system. You shouldn't have to spend your golden years at the mercy of insurance companies after a lifetime of work. You should be able to retire with dignity and respect."
Vice President Joe Biden, his wife, Jill, and first lady Michelle Obama campaigned with the president in New Hampshire and Iowa, states Romney also visited on the same day. Biden was campaigning alone in Ohio this weekend.
Obama's visit to Florida is his first since Romney and the GOP held their convention in Tampa last month. With 29 electoral votes, the state is a lynchpin in both candidates' strategies for winning the election.
Eager to characterize Republicans in general as out-of-the-mainstream, Obama has enlisted Florida's former Republican governor Charlie Crist to campaign with him. Now an independent, Crist was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Today's Republicans, Crist told delegates Thursday, are "beholden to my-way-or-the-highway bullies, indebted to billionaires who bankroll ads and allergic to the very idea of compromise."
Meanwhile, Romney and Obama are deadlocked in Virginia, where the Democrat is strong in the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Romney does better in the south and rural areas.
Romney sees working-class white voters, who have at times voted for moderate Democrats such as Sen. Mark Warner, as ripe for picking. Polls show those voters preferring Romney over Obama.
Romney plans to attend a NASCAR race in Richmond, a nod to this potentially pivotal voting bloc in Virginia, as well as Ohio, Florida, Iowa and other battlegrounds.
Romney aides say the Republican can win support by going after Obama for looming cuts in the military that could be factors in Norfolk and Hampton Roads. At issue are threatened deep spending cuts that were designed to force Congress to negotiate a debt-reduction package. But Congress has not acted and the cuts are set to kick in in January. Obama has opposed the depth of the cuts but has said Republicans need to adopt a plan that includes increases in revenue.
Romney faces similar challenges of his own in northern Virginia, where his pledge to cut 10 percent of the federal workforce affects local jobs.