VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Challenging his opponent on taxes and spending, President Barack Obama said Friday if Mitt Romney and Republican leaders are unwilling to let tax cuts lapse for the wealthiest Americans, they're "not serious" about reducing the deficit.
Courting voters in battleground Virginia, Obama renewed calls to extend Bush-era tax breaks for those earning $250,000 or less while the two sides argue about higher earners, affecting the top 2 percent of Americans. But he charged Republicans with balking, and holding middle-class cuts "hostage."
"If you say you want to bring down the deficit, but you're not willing to let tax cuts lapse for the top 2 percent, it tells me you're not serious about deficit reduction," Obama said at a campaign rally. He said lawmakers should "go ahead and help middle-class families right now. And so far, I have not gotten an OK from the other side on that. And that tells me I guess they're not that serious about deficit reduction."
Obama sought to confront head-on a key argument from Romney and Republicans, who have said Obama has promoted tax increases and allowed the federal deficit to grow during the past 3 1/2 years. Romney has called Obama's plan a massive tax hike that will hurt small businesses, one of the major creators of new jobs.
Romney had no public appearances Friday, but was giving interviews to five major network and cable television news outlets that were to be broadcast in the evening. On Thursday, Romney raised more than $4 million at a fundraiser in Wyoming with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who called him "a great American leader."
The president defended his record on taxes, saying he has cut taxes for middle-class families by an average of $3,900 during his presidency. "Just in case some of your friends or neighbors or Uncle Jim, who's a little stubborn and been watching Fox News, he thinks that somehow I've raised taxes, let's just be clear: We've lowered taxes for middle-class families since I came into office," Obama said.
Obama said his sweeping health care law was the "right thing to do," noting that the House had voted more than 30 times to scrap, defund or undercut the law since Obama signed it in March 2010. "All it would take is one vote to make sure that all of you don't see your taxes go up next year. You tell me what would be a better use of time?"
With the rally, Obama kicked off two days of campaigning in Virginia, which he won four years ago — the first Democratic presidential hopeful to do so since 1964. But he made clear that the state would be close this year and could play a pivotal role in the election, telling an overflow crowd: "When we win Virginia, we're going to have won the election."
Obama was traveling through the southeast and southwest corners of the state, courting young and African-American voters in the Virginia Beach-Hampton area before turning to more conservative Roanoke. On Saturday, Obama will campaign in Richmond, a once-staunchly Republican region he won in 2008.
Both campaigns acknowledge Virginia's new role as a fiercely contested state after years of being virtually overlooked in presidential politics. Obama won the state by a 53-46 margin over his 2008 Republican rival, Sen. John McCain.
With 13 electoral votes, Virginia figures prominently in both the Obama and Romney strategies. But Obama has more options for an Election Day victory without Virginia than does Romney. Illustrating its importance, the state has seen the third heaviest television ad spending by the candidates and their allied groups, behind only Ohio and Florida.
Despite its relatively low unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, the state relies heavily on military contracts that could suffer significantly under automatic spending cuts authorized by Congress and signed by the president last year. The Hampton Roads area that Obama is visiting Friday is home to a large military presence — the world's largest naval base is there — and its economy is heavily dependent on defense spending.
Romney and congressional Republicans said Obama had not done enough to avert the automatic, across-the-board cuts. The former Massachusetts governor wrote in a letter to Obama published Friday in The Virginian-Pilot that "your insistence on slashing our military to pay the tab for your irresponsible spending could see over 200,000 troops forced from service."
Romney warned it will "shut the doors on factories and shipyards that support our warfighters, take a heavy toll on the guard and reserves, and potentially shutter Virginia military bases."
Republican congressional leaders wrote in a similar letter to Obama that the automatic cuts "will have a significant impact on our national security and other domestic programs — such as medical research and special education — and yet the White House is now holding our troops and other important programs hostage in order to foist tax increases on small businesses, which have been routinely rejected by the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis."
Obama made no specific mention of the automatic defense spending cuts but said it was important to have a "smart national security strategy" and to ensure the nation has "a strong economy to support a strong military." In a nod to the region's military, Obama opened his trip by meeting with military families in Virginia Beach.
The president's trip followed a day of hostile exchanges between the campaigns over Romney's tenure at the private equity firm he founded in 1984. Documents submitted by the company, Bain Capital, conflict with Romney's statements about when he gave up control of the firm. Both sides accused the other of being dishonest.
Documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission place Romney in charge of Bain from 1999 to 2001, a period in which it outsourced jobs and ran companies that fell into bankruptcy. Romney and his aides say he left Bain in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Olympics, and a Bain statement said Romney "remained the sole stockholder for a time while formal ownership was being documented and transferred to the group of partners who took over management of the firm in 1999."
Obama's campaign released an online video Friday seizing upon the reports and offering this kicker: "Here's the evidence, Mr. Romney. Your turn to explain."
Meanwhile, both Obama and former President Bill Clinton said Romney had invited close scrutiny of his business acumen because he's been selling himself as heavily qualified to improve the economy.
Associated Press writers Jack Gillum and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
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