President Barack Obama on Saturday pronounced Republicans "dead wrong" in calling America a country in decline, offering a rebuttal to Republican rival Mitt Romney who seized on a disappointing August jobs report in an effort to blunt any bounce in the polls the incumbent might have gotten from the well-choreographed Democratic National Convention.
Obama and Romney clawed for advantage in a post-convention push through some of the most closely contested states that marked the opening of the final two-month sprint to the Nov. 6 election in what remains a tight race.
Each contender was seeking to frame the campaign on their own terms. Romney was concentrating on the economy, while Obama sought to play to his strengths by portraying himself as a champion of the middle class.
Obama kicked 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.
Obama told a spirited rally in St. Petersburg that America's "basic bargain" is at stake in the election, the promise that "if you work hard it will pay off." He pledged to make education more affordable, reduce dependence on foreign oil and slash deficits "without sticking it to the middle class" if he gets another term.
Romney, who spent much of the week preparing for debates and laying low during the Democratic convention, was back in motion with a planned Virginia Beach rally and visit to a NASCAR race in Richmond, Virginia.
Romney is casting Obama as an inept steward of the nation's post-recession recovery whose policies inhibit job growth and lower unemployment. 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.
No president has won re-election with unemployment over 8 percent since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"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 repeatedly decrying Romney's economic remedies as failed throwbacks to President George W. Bush's administration that would further endanger the economy.
Obama reached for some Ronald Reagan-like optimism in hard times, telling his Florid audience that much about America is essentially right.
"When our opponents say this nation is in decline they are dead wrong," he said. "This is America. We still have the best workers in the world and the best entrepreneurs in the world. We've got the best scientists and the best researchers. We've got the best colleges and the best universities."
He went on: "We are a young nation with the greatest diversity of talent and ingenuity from every corner of the globe so no matter what the naysayers may say for political reasons, no matter how dark they try to make everything look, there's not a country on Earth that wouldn't gladly trade places with the United States of America."
Days earlier, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan noted that the national debt was reported to have passed $16 trillion on the first day of the Democratic convention. "That's a country in decline," Ryan said.
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.
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.
Obama's visit to Florida is his first since the Republicans held their national convention in Tampa last month. 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 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, North Carolina.
Overall, polls show that the candidates are neck-and-neck in what looks to be one of the closest presidential contests in recent memory. Polls show fewer than 10 percent of voters are still undecided. Surveys show that Romney, with his record as a successful businessman, is viewed as the better candidate to solve the country's economic difficulties, while Obama holds a big lead as the most likable candidate and the one most attuned to the needs of average Americans.
Both campaigns are zeroing in on about eight or so closely contested battleground states that do not reliably vote Republican or Democratic. The presidential election will not be decided by popular vote but in state-by-state contests.
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, as ripe for picking. Polls suggest those voters prefer Romney over Obama. Romney's NASCAR visit was 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.