MIAMI (AP) — President Barack Obama cast Mitt Romney on Thursday as an out-of-touch challenger for the White House and an advocate of education cuts that could cause teacher strikes to spread from Chicago to other cities. The Republican countered that the U.S. economy "is bumping along the bottom" under the current administration and he predicted victory in the fall.
The two men eyed each other across hotly contested Florida, a state with 29 electoral votes, more than any other battleground in the close race for the White House.
"When you express an attitude that half the country considers itself victims, that somehow they want to be dependent on government, my thinking is maybe you haven't gotten around a lot," the president said. That was in response to a question about Romney's recent observation that 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax and believe they are victims and entitled to an array of federal benefits.
Obama spoke at a town hall-style forum aired by the Spanish-language television network Univision.
For his part, Romney was eager to move past that controversy, which has knocked him off stride. He disclosed plans for a three-day bus tour early next week through Ohio with running mate Paul Ryan and sought to return the campaign focus to the economic issues that have dominated the race all year.
At a fundraiser in Sarasota, Fla., Romney looked ahead to his televised head-to-head encounters with Obama this fall. "He's a very eloquent speaker, and so I'm sure in the debates, as last time ... he'll be very eloquent in describing his vision," the Republican said. "But he can't win by his words, because his record speaks so loudly in our ears. What he has done in the last four years is establish an economy that's bumping along the bottom."
Less than seven weeks before Election Day, polls make the race a close one, likely to be settled in eight or so swing states where neither man has a solid edge. Obama has gained ground in polls in some of those states since the completion of the Democratic National Convention two weeks ago, while Romney has struggled with controversies of his own making that have left Republicans frustrated at his performance as a candidate.
Still, there were fresh signs of weakness in the nation's job market as the two candidates vied for support in Florida.
The Labor Department said the number of Americans seeking unemployment fell only slightly last week, to a seasonally adjusted level of 382,000, suggesting that businesses remain reluctant to add to their payrolls. The four-week average rose for the fifth straight week to the highest level in nearly three months.
After more than two days of struggle, Romney seemed eager to leave the 47 percent controversy behind as he appeared at the Univision forum Wednesday night. "'My campaign is about the 100 percent in America," he said firmly.
But Obama made his most extensive comments to date on the subject since the emergence of a video showing Romney telling donors last May that as a candidate his job wasn't to worry about 47 percent of the country.
"Their problem is not they're not working hard enough or they don't want to work or they're being taxed too little or they just want to loaf around and gather government checks," the president said."
"Are there people that abuse the system? Yes, both at the bottom and at the top," he added, including millionaires who he said pay no income taxes. He said many at the low end of the income scale pay other forms of taxes, and some who don't pay taxes are senior citizens, students, disabled, veterans or soldiers who are stationed overseas.
"Americans work hard, and if they are not working right now I promise you they want to go to work," he said.
As for education, the president said Romney and running mate Ryan advocate a budget that would cut federal funds for schools by about 20 percent.
"And you could see potentially even more teachers being laid off, working conditions for teachers becoming even worse and potentially for more strikes," he said.
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