The presidential campaign is pressing into the heat of summer just as the government issues new jobless numbers that will define the state of the economy and the political contest four months from Election Day.
President Barack Obama on Friday continues an up-close-and-personal bus tour of Ohio and Pennsylvania, two hotly contested states, eager to leverage their modest economic successes into a case for his re-election. He is dishing out handshakes and hugs before the cameras, hitting neighborhoods that feel a long way from official Washington.
Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, remained at his New Hampshire vacation home as speculation turns to the selection of his running mate and the possibility his list could include a woman.
Ahead of the jobs report, Obama questioned Romney's motives on health care. In an interview with NBC affiliate WLWT in Cincinnati, Obama accused his rival of caving under pressure from conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh for saying that requiring all Americans to buy health insurance amounts to a tax.
Romney said Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled the requirement to buy health insurance was a tax, which amounted to a shift in his position. Earlier in the week, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney viewed the mandate as a penalty, a fee or a fine — not a tax.
"The fact that a whole bunch of Republicans in Washington suddenly said, this is a tax — for six years (Romney) said it wasn't, and now he has suddenly reversed himself," Obama said. "So the question becomes, are you doing that because of politics? Are you abandoning a principle that you fought for, for six years simply because you're getting pressure for two days from Rush Limbaugh or some critics in Washington?"
Obama said presidents learn that "what you say matters and your principles matter. And sometimes, you've got to fight for things that you believe in and you can't just switch on a dime.
The jobless numbers promised to command attention Friday and determine the nature of the political debate. The unemployment and hiring figures provide monthly milestones with which to measure the human toll of the weak economic recovery. Economists were predicting 90,000 jobs were added last month, more than in May but still not enough to dent the 8.2 percent unemployment rate.
A bad employment report could damage the public's already wavering economic confidence. The percentage of people in an Associated Press-GfK poll last month that said the economy got better in the past month fell below 20 percent for the first time since fall. And few said they expected much improvement in the unemployment rate in the coming year.
Still, Romney has not been able to exploit that sentiment fully. In national polls, the president either retains a slight edge over or is in a statistical tie with his challenger.
All in all, the economic data continued to provide a mixed picture of the recovery. Weekly unemployment benefit applications dropped last week to the lowest number since the week of May 19. At the same time, retailers recorded tepid sales in June. And a report last week said U.S. manufacturing shrank in June for the first time in nearly three years, undermining a top Obama talking point.
National polls show more disapproving than approving of Obama's handling of the economy, but the AP-GfK poll last month showed Romney and Obama tied on the question of who the public trusted more to handle the economy.
In selecting Ohio and Pennsylvania for his two-day bus tour, Obama began a more retail-oriented phase of his campaign in two battleground states that have had better economic experiences than other parts of the country. Both states had unemployment rates of 7.3 percent in May, well below the national average of 8.2 percent.
Friday's schedule includes a stop at an elementary school in Poland, Ohio, near Youngstown, followed by a speech at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Kicking off his two-state, 250-mile bus tour in Maumee in the northern Ohio suburbs, Obama said he "refused to turn my back on communities like this one."
Romney, from his family lake home in New Hampshire, criticized Obama for offering "no new answers" on the economy.
Obama returned to the campaign trail just as his administration initiated a trade complaint against China at the World Trade Organization. It accused Beijing of unfairly imposing duties on more than $3 billion in exports of American-produced automobiles, a relevant issue in Ohio, where automakers have been affected by the tariffs.
The Obama administration's action, the seventh trade complaint it has issued against China, illustrated how trade relations between the U.S. and China could affect the presidential campaign. Romney has accused Obama of not being tough enough with the Chinese.
For Obama, the trip through northern Ohio on Thursday offered a picturesque backdrop to his economic message, as his bus and motorcade trundled through Main streets and past cornfields and fruit stands and American Legion halls. Small children clambered onto fathers' shoulders to get a better view. The tour made periodic stops that gave the president direct contact with voters, and where direct contact was not possible, Obama turned to the airwaves, granting television interviews to local Ohio stations.
Recent polls by Quinnipiac University found that Obama held a 9 percentage-point lead over Romney in Ohio and a 6-point lead in Pennsylvania. Obama won both states in the 2008 election
Quick to counter Obama's message, Republicans dispatched former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, two potential vice presidential nominees, to argue Romney's case in some of the same towns Obama was visiting.
"We should all bet on the country, but we shouldn't double down on Barack Obama," Pawlenty said Thursday. "He's had his chance. It's not working. And we need to get it moving in a different direction."
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