CLEVELAND – President Barack Obama cast his re-election race against Republican Mitt Romney as the economic choice of a lifetime on Thursday, seeking to stir undecided voters and asking the nation to buy into his vision for four more years or face a return to the recession-era "mistakes of the past."
Said Romney: "Talk is cheap."
From opposite ends of Ohio, a state vital to both of their political futures, Romney and Obama dueled in economic speeches that set the tone for a fierce, final five months of debate. At the core, the pitches were the political foes' familiar, fundamentally different takes on how get to an economically aching nation soaring again.
"That's really what this election is about," Obama said in his most detailed case for a second term. "That's what is at stake right now. Everything else is just noise."
Romney went first from Cincinnati, a Republican stronghold in the state, and he described Obama's administration as the very "enemy" of people who create jobs.
"Look what's happened across this country," Romney said. "If you think things are going swimmingly, if you think the president's right when he said the private sector is doing fine, then he's the guy to vote for." But he questioned why anyone would do that, saying if the job isn't getting done, pick "someone who can do a better job."
The backdrop was Ohio, seen by political strategists as a state that could swing the election.
It went to Obama last time, and George W. Bush before that, and it remains crucial for both competitors this year — particularly Romney. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio.
Romney gave what amounted to his standard speech, albeit realigned as a prebuttal as Obama was pulling into his event site at the top of the state. Given the tight presidential race and the enormous interest in the economy, the two speeches offered anticipation of a big campaign moment, but the substance yielded little new.
This was Obama in professor mode, filling his speech with budget numbers and history and talk of independent analysts. It was an economics case, yet hardly one of roaring rhetorical lift. The goal for Obama was not to uncork new proposals but to define a contrast. He is still pushing tax credits and other jobs ideas that have awaited action in Congress for months.
On Thursday, he said the election is an opportunity for voters to step in and "break the stalemate."
In essence, Obama said Romney would gut government and cut taxes for the rich at the expense of everyone else.
Romney said Obama is crushing the free market with regulation.
Obama said, "If you believe this economy grows best when everybody gets a fair shot and everybody does their fair share and everybody plays by the same set of rules, then I ask you to stand with me for a second term as president."
He made a concerted push for independent and undecided voters by pledging anew to work with anyone "who believes that we're in this together."
Despite what had seemed to be a speech showdown, the two events were not of the same scope.
Obama spoke for more than 50 minutes, more than doubling Romney's comments, in what his campaign called the first in a series of major economic speeches. The settings offered different optics as well; Romney went coatless with his sleeves rolled up before about 100 people; Obama gave a formal address to 1,500 people.
Romney's reference to Obama's statement about the private sector "doing fine" recalled what was largely seen as a presidential gaffe last week. Even though Obama's aides said he was taken out of context, Obama conceded his misstep on Thursday, joking "It wasn't the first time. It won't be the last."
The president also appealed for more time to let his ideas work. Citing the monster American recession, he said most countries in the past have needed 10 years to recover.
The economic focus came at a grim time in the American economic recovery. The country produced just 69,000 jobs last month. And Europe's financial crisis is eroding confidence around the globe.
Politically, both Romney and Obama used Europe as a foil.
For Obama, it was to say while the economies of many European nations aren't growing, America's is because "we acted fast." Romney said Obama had amassed crippling debt. "You want four more years of that?" he said. "You call that forward? That's forward over a cliff. That's forward on the way to Greece."
Steve Peoples reported from Cincinnati. Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Kasie Hunt contributed from Washington.