COLUMBUS - President Obama launched his re-election campaign here today, highlighting progress the U.S. has made pulling itself out of an economic malaise under his leadership while blasting the presumptive nominee Mitt Romney as out of touch with the middle class.
Accompanied by his wife Michelle - who the president went back to retrieve after starting down the stairs of Air Force One without her -- the president spoke for 38 minutes before a young, racially diverse crowd of about 10,000 at an Ohio State University basketball arena.
"I believe in you. I'm asking you to keep believing in me," the president said to thunderous applause.
Obama mentioned Romney by name only five times during his speech. The president complimented Romney as a patriotic, successful American who had raised a wonderful family. Then he criticized his opponent for being out of touch and too close to conservative House Republicans.
"Ohio, I tell you what. We can't give him the chance," Obama said. "This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class. And we've been through too much to turn back now."
"Corporations aren't people. People are people," the president said in a reference to a Romney comment earlier in the campaign.
The start of the campaign may foreshadow the style, themes and challenges of the final six months until the November: hard-hitting, aimed at firing up existing supporters more than attracting new ones and focused on the handful of states that could go either way in he presidential election.
Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, blasted the speech as "more divisive rhetoric."
"Obama talks a lot about moving forward but has he forgotten he's been president for the past three years?" Priebus said. "He failed to change Washington as he promised and unlike 2008, he will have to answer for his record."
"It's telling that Obama had to spend so much time on the attack in his kick-off speech," tweeted RNC research director Joe Pounder.
Columbus, the biggest city in Ohio, is a considered a key swing city in a key swing state. It has the youth vote - 57,000 students at Ohio State's main campus alone - and a large black population, plus Republican-leaning voters nearby in the suburbs and rural areas.
It was hard to measure whether enthusiasm by core supporters had changed.
About 14,000 filed into the 18,300-seat Schottenstein Center, with the arena's upper deck nearly empty. Student attendance at the rally was modest. After he finished at Ohio State, the president and First lady were flying to Richmond, Va., for another rally on the campus of Viginia Commonwealth University.
"It's not that his support is falling. It's just that we've seen him before, many of us a bunch of times," said Ohio State student Alison Forsyth, who attended a rally for the first time.
Richard Brown, 24, a rapper from Chillicothe, Ohio, drove an hour to support Obama and said the young people he knows are more energetic that four years ago. "People are worried about the economy and jobs," said his friend, Jason Kinnamon, 39, a graphic designer who was seeing the president for the first time.
Nick DiRutigliano, 17, of Columbus, will turn 18 before the election and cast the first vote of his life for Obama. "He's a good leader," the high school senior said.
Contributing: Aamer Madhani in Richmond, Va.
By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY