CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Their battle joined, challenger Mitt Romney savaged President Barack Obama's handling of the economy on Wednesday while the commander-in-chief commiserated up close with victims of the recession and warned that Republicans would only make matters worse.
"Obama is over his head and swimming in the wrong direction" when it comes to the economy, Romney said in a scorching speech delivered across the street from the football stadium where the president will deliver his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech this summer.
"Even if you like Barack Obama, we can't afford Barack Obama," the former Massachusetts governor declared, an evident reference to the president's ability to transcend at least some of the public's dissatisfaction with the pace of the recovery. Romney quoted liberally — and mockingly — from Obama's 2008 campaign pledges to repair the economy.
At the same time, Obama sketched his case for re-election in swing-state Ohio, where he met with unemployed workers who have enrolled in job training programs. Then he spoke at the Lorain County Community College.
"Right now, companies can't find enough qualified workers for the jobs they need to fill" locally, he said. "So programs like this one are training hundreds of thousands of workers with the skills that companies are looking for. And it's working." By contrast, he said, between the years 2000 and 2008, Republican policies produced "the slowest job growth in half a century ... and we've spent the last three and a half years cleaning up after that mess."
Campaign symbolism counted for much on a day that seems destined to be replicated often in the six months until Election Day.
The Republican challenger delivered his scathing denunciation of the president's policies with the Bank of America Stadium over his shoulder. Aides dubbed his remarks a pre-buttal to the president's own, and early-arriving partisans heard a recorded medley of rock music that included "It's Still the Same."
Each man taunted the other at times.
"I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth," Obama said in an evident reference to Romney, whose father was president of American Motors, an automaker.
Romney jabbed that unlike four years ago, when Obama walked through stage-set columns at his convention, things would be different this summer.
"You're not going to see President Obama standing alongside Greek columns. He's not going to want to remind anyone of Greece," Romney said, "because he's put us on a road to become more like Greece," where crushing debt has led to an austerity plan and public protests.
It was only within the past two weeks that Romney shed his competition for the Republican presidential nomination, and he is still in the process of trying to unite his party after a three-month primary struggle in which he had trouble appealing to hardcore conservatives.
But already, elements of the fall campaign are falling into place.
Obama's campaign was airing Spanish language radio ads in Orlando, Fla., Las Vegas and Denver — all in states that the president won four years ago and that figure to be fiercely contested in the fall.
For his part, Romney arranged an appearance for Thursday at a factory in Lorain, Ohio, shadowing Obama's Wednesday trip to the area. Obama toured the factory as part of his 2008 campaign — and it was closed later.
Polls consistently show the economy is the top issue for the nation's voters, who will decide whether to accept Romney's indictment or Obama's reassurances. Given recent trends, each man has a case to make.
In Ohio, joblessness was 9.1 percent in February 2009, shortly after Obama took office. It stood at 7.6 last month.
In North Carolina, joblessness was 9.5 percent then, and stands at 9.9 now.
In Michigan, where Obama was appearing late Wednesday, it was 12.5 percent in 2009 and is 8.8 percent now.
In all three states, unemployment rose in the months immediately after Obama took office as the recession deepened and financial markets trembled.
"Right now we have two competing visions of our future. And the choice could not be clearer," said Obama. He said he was sure Republicans were "patriots. I'm sure they're sincere in -- in terms of what they say. But their theory, I believe, is wrong."
Without mentioning Romney by name, he said, "Instead of moderating their views even slightly, you now have Republicans in Washington, the ones running for president, proposing budgets that shower the wealthiest Americans with even more tax cuts, folks like me who don't need them, weren't looking for them."
But Romney was relentless as he ripped into the president.
"Virtually nothing he has done has made it more likely for people to get jobs," he said.
Reading from Obama's campaign pledges from the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, he said the president has "failed by the measurements he set. You won't hear that at this convention, but you're going to hear it at ours."
He added, "We're a trusting people. We're a hopeful people. But we are not dumb, and we are not going to fall for the same lines from the same person just because it's a different place."
Nancy Benac reported from Elyria, Ohio. Associated Press writer Stacy Anderson contributed from Washington.