SEMINOLE, Fla. — President Barack Obama on Saturday pronounced Republicans "dead wrong" in calling America a country in decline, offering a rebuttal to the "naysayers" who drew attention to the nation's staggering debt and anemic job growth.
Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney clawed for advantage in a post-convention push through some of the most closely contested states that marked the opening of the homestretch of the tight race.
Obama told a spirited rally 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 rally in Richmond, Va.,
Virginia and Florida are two of a handful of states that could determine the outcome of the election.
Obama reached for some Ronald Reagan-like optimism in hard times, telling his 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, GOP 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.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high, clocking in at 8.1 percent on Friday and keeping joblessness and economic weakness on the boil as top campaign issues.
Obama opened a two-day bus tour in Florida, campaigning in a state with the highest elderly population and an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent, higher than the national average.
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 only marginally from 8.3 percent the month before.
"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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Belmont, Mass., and Matthew Daly in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.