DES MOINES, Iowa – Mitt Romney and fellow Republicans held up an unlikely role model — Democrat Bill Clinton — as they teamed up Wednesday to denounce President Barack Obama's welfare policy and portray him as too far left to be re-elected.
Obama is "the anti-Clinton," declared former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, bolstering a line of attack taken up by Romney in speeches and a TV ad as part of a hard sell to working-class voters.
Obama was focusing his pitch on the same group Wednesday, and also reaching out to women, whose support is essential to his prospects in November. The president was appearing in Colorado with college student Sandra Fluke, whose congressional testimony became a flashpoint for arguments over contraception, abortion and women's health care.
At a morning rally in Iowa, Romney repeated his charge that Obama is stripping work requirements from welfare and instituting changes to "make America more of a nation of government dependency."
Obama's campaign says Romney is misrepresenting a change that simply gives more freedom to states that requested it to help deal with paperwork. But Gingrich, whose own bid for the GOP nomination was quashed by Romney, argued that the administration's willingness to weigh state requests for waivers amounts to a back-door maneuver to undermine the 1996 law signed by Clinton.
"Clinton was trying to move the party to the center," Gingrich told reporters, referring to the Democratic Party. "Obama is trying to move it to the left."
The former president himself weighed in. Clinton said in a statement Tuesday that the assertion in Romney's ad was "not true."
The effort to cleave Obama from a popular policy of Clinton's presidency comes just weeks before the former president is scheduled to appear as a crowd-rousing, marquee speaker at the Democratic National Convention.
The welfare issue as pushed by the Romney campaign appeared to be aimed at blue-collar whites in a weak economy and suggested that Obama might be gaining ground politically with his position on taxes.
In lambasting Obama for failure to bring a faster economic recovery, Romney also took a crack at California's budget troubles.
"Entrepreneurs and business people around the world and here at home think that at some point America is going to become like Greece or like Spain or Italy or like California — just kidding about that one, in some ways," he said to laughter from the Iowa crowd.
After the Des Moines rally, Romney was headed to New Jersey to raise more money for his already sizable campaign accounts. On his way to the airport, the former Massachusetts governor stopped to visit a corn field and talk with a farmer about the severe drought gripping much of the nation.
Obama was heading westward to Colorado to make his case to working-class voters and women.
The setting for the comments mattered, too. Romney was campaigning in Iowa, where six electoral votes are up for grabs. Strategists from both parties envision a close election in the state that, in some ways, launched both Romney and Obama.
Four years ago, Obama won Iowa's leadoff Democratic caucuses en route to his party's presidential nomination. He went on to carry Iowa in the general election against Republican Sen. John McCain.
Yet when Obama won the state four years ago, Democrats had a 105,000-voter registration advantage. Republicans now hold a 21,589 voter advantage and are more bullish about their chances.
Romney, too, won his party's Iowa caucuses — at least for a while. Election officials later reversed the call and gave former Sen. Rick Santorum the upset. By then, Romney had momentum after another strong showing in New Hampshire.
Obama plans to spend three days in Iowa next week, a signal that his advisers see the Midwestern state as fertile soil for his political message, especially his support for wind energy. Wind turbines dot the Iowa horizon and employ thousands of voters. Romney often mocks Obama's support for so-called green energy projects, a position that puts him at odds with Republican leaders in the state.
Obama is launching a two-day, four-city swing through Colorado on Wednesday. His events are expected to focus on the economy, including his call for Congress to extend tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year while letting the cuts for higher-income earners expire.
A new Quinnipiac University poll shows Obama and Romney tied among voters in Colorado households earning between $30,000 and $50,000 per year — an important target. Obama leads among voters with lower incomes; Romney is favored by those making more.
Obama planned to emphasize women's health issues at his first event in Denver. The president was to be introduced by Fluke, the Georgetown University student who gained notoriety after conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called her a slut because she supports the Obama health care law's requirement that insurance companies cover contraception.
In an online opinion piece Wednesday, Fluke cited Romney's "dangerous promises" to roll back Obama's health care law. She also noted that Romney hadn't denounced Limbaugh's name-calling.
"If Mr. Romney can't stand up to the extreme voices in his own party, we know he'll never stand up for women and protect the rights that generations of women fought so hard to ensure," Fluke wrote for The Huffington Post.
The president has been running television advertisements in Colorado highlighting his health care overhaul's benefits for women and warning that those benefits could be taken away if Romney wins. On Wednesday the campaign released a video in which actress Elizabeth Banks describes her personal experience with Planned Parenthood and criticizes Romney for promising to eliminate its federal funding.
Both Obama and Romney see women — particularly suburban women from their 30s to their 50s — as crucial to the tight contest in Colorado.
Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Chicago and Kasie Hunt and Connie Cass in Washington contributed to this report.