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POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

President Obama assails Mitt Romney at kickoff rallies

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President Obama and his wife, Michelle, clasped hands with supporters during a campaign rally at Ohio State University.

COLUMBUS, Ohio - President Obama sought to rekindle the passion of his 2008 victory with a pair of huge rallies Saturday that signaled a new, politically aggressive phase in the debate over the country’s direction and the official start of his personal confrontation with Mitt Romney.

After an introduction from his wife, Michelle, in front of thousands of supporters at Ohio State University, Obama said the country’s continuing economic challenges should not be allowed to overshadow a record of accomplishment that deserves more time to work.

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“We came together to reclaim the basic bargain that built the largest middle class and the most prosperous nation in the world,’’ Obama said to the crowd of about 14,000 people. “We are making progress.’’

Singling out Romney by name, he urged the crowd not to veer from the hopeful course he said they had set four years ago and he lashed out at Republicans in Congress for offering a vision of America that leaves the middle class and the poor at the mercy of the wealthy.

He said that conservative leaders in Congress had found in Romney a “rubber stamp’’ for their agenda, including lowering taxes for the rich, reducing spending on education and Medicare, and enhancing the power that big banks and insurers have over consumers..

“Ohio, I tell you what. We can’t give him the chance,’’ Obama said to cheers and chants of “Four more years!’’ from the crowd. “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class. And we’ve been through too much to turn back now.’’

For Obama, the rally in Ohio and one later at Virginia Commonwealth University were the symbolic kickoff of his reelection campaign and provided the first major public platforms for the president to draw explicit distinctions between himself and Romney.

They were designed to define Romney as an unappealing alternative for voters - wealthy, out of touch, and unconcerned with the travails of Americans struggling to make ends meet.

“For the American people, the next few months will be sort of an intense burrowing in on the candidates, though more on Romney than on us, because they know us,’’ said David Axelrod, a senior strategist for the Obama campaign. “Views will not set, but harden over the summer. By the time you get to Labor Day, I don’t think you’re going to be able to change impressions greatly over the fall.’’

In Ohio, Obama called Romney “a patriotic American who has raised a wonderful family.’’ But, he said, the former Massachusetts governor had drawn all of the wrong lessons from his political and business careers.

“Somehow, he and his friends in Congress think that the same bad ideas will lead to a different result,’’ Obama said. “We were there. We remember. And we are not going back. We are moving this country forward.’’

The rallies came at the end of a whirlwind week that showcased some of Obama’s greatest strengths and most acute weaknesses: his national security and counterterrorism credentials - on display during a surprise visit to Afghanistan on the anniversary of the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden - and his stewardship of the economy, called into question again by Friday’s weak jobs report.

Adopting the populist rhetoric that has increasingly become part of his remarks at private fund-raisers and in official White House events, Obama decried what he called the Republicans’ efforts to direct benefits to the wealthy rather than to the middle class.

“I don’t care about how many ways you try to explain it,’’ he said. “Corporations aren’t people. People are people.’’

Obama vowed to continue what he said has been an effort to refocus the US economy on working people and to reward harder work with higher wages and more prosperity. “We will finish what we started,’’ he said.

Although the campaign has been active for months, it has functioned largely in the shadows of a noisy GOP contest.

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