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“These are tough times with real serious issues, so you have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird.” Romney told a cheering crowd. “I actually think we need to have a president who talks about saving the American people and saving good jobs and saving our future.”

With his newfound political celebrity, Big Bird has emerged as the latest star in a campaign proxy war over a larger policy issue.

In 2008, Joe Wurzelbacher, or “Joe the Plumber,” set off a proxy battle over tax policy when he asked Obama about his tax plan for small business. Obama’s videotaped reply, in which he told Wurzelbacher that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” prompted Republican John McCain to seize the statement as evidence that Obama supported socialist tax policies. Obama doubled down on his argument that higher income earners should be taxed more than the middle class.

This year, Big Bird is serving as a central actor in the debate over federal spending in tough economic times.

Public broadcasting has long drawn the scorn of many conservatives who see it as wasteful and having a liberal bias. Romney has framed it as a fiscal issue, suggesting shows like “Sesame Street” should charge for advertising like other television stations and shouldn’t depend on the federal government for support.

Obama, for his part, has tried to frame the controversy as a matter of conservative overreach, suggesting that Romney and others would cut funding for much-beloved children’s programming while giving tax breaks to the wealthy.

PBS receives a portion of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which receives an annual appropriation from Congress. In 2012, CPB received $445 million in federal funding. PBS said in a news release after last week’s presidential debate that public broadcasting receives about one-100th of 1 percent of the federal budget.

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Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, Kasie Hunt, Philip Elliott and Josh Lederman in Washington, Steve Peoples in Iowa and Ben Feller in California contributed to this report.