CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama declared that Republican rival Mitt Romney should be penalized for "unnecessary roughness" on the middle class and accused him in a ringing labor Day speech of backing higher taxes for millions in opposing the 2009 auto industry bailout.
"I've got one piece of advice for you about the Romney-Ryan game plan: Punt it away. It won't work. It won't win the game," Obama said, blending sports-themed remarks with economic barbs before a cheering crowd in the nation's industrial heartland.
He backed up his rally comments with a new television commercial that says Romney doesn't understand the "heavy load" the middle class is carrying yet wants to give himself a big new tax break. It's the president's first new ad since last week's Republican National Convention, a reminder that he and his allies have been outspent by millions in the ad wars over the past several weeks.
His sports comments in Toledo, Ohio, amounted to a rebuttal to Romney's weekend appeal to voters to fire the current coach — Obama — and install the Republicans instead at the controls of an economy sputtering along with 8.3 percent unemployment.
The president headed to hurricane-damaged Louisiana late in the day as he slowly made his way toward the Democrats' convention city.
A few blocks from the hall where Democratic delegates will gather on Tuesday, union members staged a Labor Day march through downtown. Though supporting Obama, they also expressed frustration that he and the Democrats chose to hold their convention in a state that bans collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees.
There was disagreement among the ranks of the marchers. "I understand their frustration ... but do they really think they're going to be better off with Romney?" asked Phil Wheeler, 70, a delegate from Connecticut and a retired member of United Auto Workers Local 376 in Hartford.
Democrats chose the state to underscore their determination to contest it in the fall campaign. Obama carried North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008, but he faces a tough challenge this time given statewide unemployment of 9.6 percent in the most recent tabulation.
Romney relaxed at his lakeside home in New Hampshire with his family as Obama and running mate Joe Biden sought to motivate union voters to support them in difficult economic times. Romney took a mid-morning boat ride, pulling up to a dock to fuel up his 29-foot Sea Ray and pick up a jet ski that had been in for repairs.
In a statement emailed to reporters before he left his house, the businessman-turned-political candidate said: "For far too many Americans, today is another day of worrying when their next paycheck will come."
Campaigning on Saturday in Cincinnati, Romney likened Obama to a football coach with a record of 0 and 23 million, a reference to the number of unemployed and underemployed Americans.
Obama rebutted him 48 hours later — and play by play.
"On first down he hikes taxes by nearly $2,000 on the average family with kids in order to pay for massive tax cuts for multimillionaires. ... Sounds like unnecessary roughness to me," he said.
"On second down he calls an audible and undoes reforms that are there to prevent another financial crisis and bank bailout. ...
"And then on third down, he calls for a hail Mary, ending Medicare as we know it by giving seniors a voucher that leaves them to pay any additional cost out of their pockets. But there's a flag on the play: Loss of up to an additional $6,400 a year for the same benefits you get now."
Romney denies that his plan to help the economy and reduce federal deficits will result in higher taxes for the middle class. But he has yet to provide enough detail to refute the claim, and Obama's assertion rests on a study by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center.
As for the auto bailout that he backed and Romney opposed, Obama told the audience, "Three years later, the American auto industry has come roaring back. Nearly 250,000 new jobs."
Obama's new campaign commercial said that under Romney's "a middle class family will pay an average of up to $2,000 more a year taxes, while at the same time giving multimillionaires like himself a $250,000 tax cut."
Aides said it would air in Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia, the by-now familiar list of battleground states where the 2012 race for the White House is likely to be decided.
The president and aides have acknowledged for weeks that they and the groups supporting them are likely to be outspent by Romney, and recent figures say that has been the case in television advertising in the battleground states for much of the past two months.
Republican strategists contend that they have used the advantage to begin to erode Obama's job favorability ratings, but declined to provide any polling results to support the assertion.
At the same time, reports by firms that track advertising show that Republicans hope to expand the campaign battleground into Wisconsin, Michigan and possibly Pennsylvania and Minnesota. An effective ad campaign there in such states could force Obama to divert resources from other states to defend turf he has long assumed would be his with relative ease.
Republicans ramped up their counter-programming as the opening of the Democrats' convention approached.
"People are not better off than they were four years ago. After another four years of this, who knows what it'll look like then," said Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, campaigning in Greenville, N.C. "We're not going to let that happen."
Obama's top campaign surrogates had flinched from saying on Sunday that the average American is better off than four years ago, but they — and Biden — hastily recalibrated their response overnight.
"You want to know whether we're better off? I've got a little bumper sticker for you: 'Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,'" Biden told a campaign crowd in Detroit, the city that for generations has been synonymous with the American auto industry.
Ben Feller reported from Toledo. Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Detroit, Kasie Hunt in Wolfeboro, N.H., and Michael Biesecker, Mitch Weiss and Beth Fouhy in North Carolina contributed to this report.