SEMINOLE, Fla. — Kicking off a two-day bus tour across Florida, President Obama on Saturday tried to convince voters that America is not deteriorating, while his opponent Mitt Romney, campaigning in another key swing state, told a Virginia crowd there would be no cuts to the military under his watch.
In the Navy town of Virginia Beach, Mr. Romeny promised to roll back the "sequestration" defense cuts set to kick in in 2013 unless Republican and Democratic congressional leaders reach a long-term fiscal deal this year.
"We must have a military second to none," he told supporters. "If I'm president of the United States we'll get rid of those sequestration cuts and rebuild America's military might."
The former Massachusetts governor, looking to return Virginia to the Republican column after Mr. Obama's surprising win in the traditionally red state in 2008, is expected to make an appearance later Saturday at a NASCAR event in Richmond.
Campaigning at an outdoor rally at St. Petersburg College, Mr. Obama didn't address the defense cuts directly but did say, "As long as I'm commander-in-chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known."
The president also pushed back against the Republican talking point that America has been diminished under the Obama administration.
"When our opponents say this nation is in decline, they are dead wrong," Mr. Obama told about 11,000 supporters at St. Petersburg College. "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."
The president is trying to deflect attention from the disappointing unemployment report Friday, which showed that employers added only 96,000 jobs in August. Mr. Obama has acknowledged that the meager job growth is "not good enough" and is calling on congressional Republicans to approve some of his proposals to jump-start the economy.
Mr. Romney said Saturday that Americans are hurting under Mr. Obama's leadership.
"Nearly 47 million Americans are on food stamps – an all-time record high, and 15 million more Americans than when President Obama took office," Mr. Romney said in a podcast. "Nearly 60 percent of the jobs that have been created after the recession was officially over are low-wage jobs, and they pay less than $14 an hour. And our national debt recently reached a staggering $16 trillion, an increase of almost $6 trillion under President Obama. Americans are hurting: They're paying a heavy toll for these years of drift and disappointment, trying hard to hang on for a brighter day."
At least two polls released on Saturday suggested that Mr. Obama did receive a slight "bounce" after the Democratic convention. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the president with a two-point lead, 46 percent to 44 percent, reversing the slight lead held by Mr. Romney after the GOP convention. Gallup's daily tracking poll had Mr. Obama leading by four percentage points, up from two points prior to the Democratic convention.
But those polls don't reflect the news about the latest jobless numbers, which give more fuel for Mr. Romney's argument that a change is needed in the White House.
Obama campaign officials tried to downplay the monthly jobless statistics, saying long-term trends are more important.
"We know most people not sitting at home clicking 'refresh' on the [Bureau of Labor Statisics] website," said campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. She said Americans are concerned instead with their own practical problems at home.
Although job growth is still anemic, White House press secretary Jay Carney noted that August was the 30th straight month that the private sector added jobs.
The campaign swing, which included stops Friday in the battleground states of New Hampshire and Iowa, is meant to build momentum coming out of the Democratic National Convention, where Mr. Obama accepted his party's renomination on Thursday night. He's motoring through Florida in Ground Force One, the black, million-dollar bus that the Secret Service unveiled in the summer of 2011.
Unemployment in Florida in July was 8.8 percent, higher than the national average. The president's trip to Florida is his first since Mr. Romney and the Republicans held their convention in Tampa two weeks ago. With 29 electoral votes, the state is an important prize for both candidates. Prior to this weekend, Mr. Obama had already held 15 campaign events in Florida.
The latest polls show a tight race in the Sunshine State. A survey by Gravis Marketing last Sunday showed Mr. Romney leading by one percentage point, 48 percent to 47 percent. A poll by a Democratic-leaning firm a few days earlier found Mr. Obama leading by one point.
Mr. Obama is getting help from Florida's former Republican governor Charlie Crist, who is campaigning with him and was a featured speaker at the Democratic convention.
Mr. Crist said called Mr. Obama "a leader that America needs."
"We are blessed to have this president," Mr. Crist told the crowd in Seminole.
The president's bus tour will take him across the I-4 corridor in central Florida, a region with a fast-growing Latino population. Mr. Obama is holding rallies in counties that were key to his victory in the state in 2008.
Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, called central Florida "the sweet spot" for candidates trying to win the state.
"If President Obama wins the state of Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, that's the election," Mr. Nelson said.
The president, who campaigned four years ago on a theme of "hope and change," told supporters Saturday in Kissimmee, Fla., that a vote for him this year is still a vote for change. But he said progress is sometimes slow.
"Sometimes it's frustrating, and change doesn't happen the way it should," he said. "Only you have the power to move us forward."
This article includes wire service reports.
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