By BEN FELLER and STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Dueling from down the road, President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney on Thursday will offer deeply contrasting visions for how to fix the sluggish economy, framing in their most direct terms the fierce, fundamental choice that will decide the November election.
The setting alone is a competition: Obama and Romney will give their economic speeches at about the same time from the same state, battleground Ohio.
Given the fragile economy, the split-screen showdown offers the sense of a bigger moment in a campaign that has been defined mainly by ads and fundraisers. Yet for all the hype, particularly surrounding the speech of the sitting president, previews from both sides point toward plenty of familiar themes and few, if any, new ideas.
For Obama, the speech will aim to get above the daily ups and downs — more downs of late — and pull the American people into the discussion Obama wants: a choice between his economic ideas and Romney's. As he has done before at pivotal moments in his presidency, Obama will use a big speech to try to reframe the debate.
For Romney, the occasion is about defining how he would lead the economy, including the priorities for his first 100 days in office. The former Massachusetts governor who made a fortune in business is sensing momentum on his side, particularly as the weak pace of job growth undermines Obama's stick-with-me message.
Obama is not expected to announce any big policy changes. His aides say his pending jobs ideas before Congress remain valid, and he will keep pushing them.
The two men will essentially be going after each other from 250 miles apart, with Obama at a community college in Cleveland and Romney at a manufacturing company in Cincinnati. In choosing Ohio, they are targeting the state that strategists in both parties consider perhaps the most contested and vital of this election.
Obama will probably pound on the second-term economic vision he began laying out months ago. He will lay out a jobs plan of spending tax money on education, energy, science and innovation and transportation; cutting the debt by reducing spending elsewhere and raising taxes on the wealthy; and taking on the nation's loophole-loaded tax code to make it fairer.
Romney will talk about cutting regulation and spending, overhauling the tax system, doing away with Obama's health care overhaul and supporting a major oil pipeline known as Keystone XL. Setting his own expectations for Obama, Romney told donors in Cincinnati: "He'll speak with great rhetoric and eloquence. But actions and records speak a heck of a lot louder than words."
Without doubt, Romney and Obama have starkly different visions of economic rebirth, the issue of top concern for voters. To hear them tell it, Obama thinks Romney's jobs philosophy is a failed notion of just cutting taxes and gutting regulation, while Romney says the president is a big-government defender who is stifling the free market at the cost of economic acceleration.
Of the two, Obama is carrying more of a political burden because, as the guy in charge, he is saddled with a lumbering economic recovery. Romney can largely blame the incumbent — just as Obama, as a candidate, benefited from blaming President George W. Bush.
Obama has sought to erode that argument and dent Romney's business credentials by saying his only idea is faulting Obama.
The speeches come in a month marked by bad economic news. May employment numbers showed that the private sector created a disappointing 69,000 jobs and that the jobless rate ticked up to 8.2 percent. This week, the Federal Reserve released data showing that the median family net worth shrank between 2007 and 2010 to levels not seen since 1992.
No matter what path either candidate takes to reach the necessary 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, Ohio and its 18 electoral votes figure in every scenario. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. Obama carried the state 52 percent to 47 percent in 2008 over John McCain; Bush carried it 51 percent to 49 percent in 2004 over Democrat John Kerry.