By TOM RAUM, Associated Press
Mitt Romney is nipping at President Barack Obama's heels in Rust Belt states that Obama won in 2008 but which polls show are becoming more competitive in a slowing economy.
The big event Thursday was a set of dueling and overlapping Ohio economic speeches, with the president in Cleveland and his Republican challenger in Cincinnati.
The weakness this spring in job creation and slowdown in economic output has prompted both candidates to sharpen their messages to tap into high voter anxiety.
Obama presents himself as a defender of the middle class and portrays Romney as a protector of the rich and a champion of economic proposals that are a throwback to flawed policies of President George W. Bush.
Romney blames Obama for failing to turn around the economy and suggests he made things worse with ineffective stimulus and bailout spending and other policies that inhibit growth while ballooning deficits.
Romney returns to Ohio Sunday as part of a five-day bus tour of battleground states. No Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio. Romney's tour begins Friday in New Hampshire and also includes Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan, where Romney grew up.
Obama won all six in 2008, but Republicans see a much better shot at capturing some of them now.
The speech showdown comes as some Democratic strategists are urging Obama to chart a more clear-cut and aggressive course.
"We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative," wrote Democratic consultant James Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg in a widely circulated memo.
After Cleveland, the president and first lady Michelle Obama travel to New York City for a briefing on construction progress at the One World Trade Center building and then attend two fundraisers. Romney heads from Cincinnati to Chicago for a fundraiser.
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ With 145 days left until Election Day, here are insights into today's highlights in U.S. politics
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