By KEN THOMAS, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is trying to keep the pressure on rival Mitt Romney, opening two days of campaigning in Florida in search of military veterans, seniors and unaligned voters in the state's crucial midsection.
Obama was holding events Thursday in Jacksonville and West Palm Beach as his campaign urges Romney to release more years of his tax returns and keeps a sharp focus on the former Massachusetts governor's tenure as the head of a private equity firm.
Florida is the largest and most coveted of the nation's Election Day toss-up states, a place where Romney could severely damage Obama's chances of winning re-election. Republicans are holding their national convention in Tampa in August in hopes of giving themselves an edge in the state.
Yet, if Obama can lock down Florida's 29 electoral votes, it would be difficult for Romney to mount enough support elsewhere to capture the White House.
Polls have shown Obama and Romney in a dead heat in the state, which has struggled with an unemployment rate of 8.6 percent, above the national average, and a still-recovering housing market. Florida provided the deciding margin in George W. Bush's victory in 2000 and has been closely contested ever since, with Obama carrying the state in 2008.
Obama aides noted that since 1992, Floridians have cast more than 32.5 million votes during the past five presidential elections and only 57,000 votes have separated the two parties in those campaigns. "Florida's always a close state and we don't expect that to change between now and November," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.
Both sides are jockeying for an advantage.
Obama has repeatedly criticized Romney's private equity firm, Bain Capital, arguing that it promoted the outsourcing of jobs to countries like China and India. And Democrats want Romney to make public past tax returns, noting that the one year for which he has released returns showed investments and offshore accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
Several Republicans have joined in the call for more transparency, including several GOP senators and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who challenged Romney for the GOP nomination earlier this year.
In an interview aired Thursday on WTOL-TV in Toledo, Ohio, Romney said one reason not to release more of his returns was that "the Democratic party and the opposition has all these people that comb through and try and find anything they can to distract from the issues people care about, oftentimes in a dishonest way."
In recent days, Romney has pointed to Obama's record on the economy and noted that the Democrat hasn't met with his jobs council in more than six months. He told supporters in Bowling Green, Ohio, on Wednesday that Obama's priority "is trying to keep his own job. And that's why he's going to lose it."
The president was starting his day with a campaign event in Jacksonville, home to a large swath of veterans and military members connected to Naval Air Station Jacksonville. Before military audiences, Obama has talked about his efforts to bring home U.S. combat troops from Iraq and wind down the conflict in Afghanistan and pressed Congress to promote job opportunities for veterans.
Obama is expected to make a pitch to seniors in West Palm Beach, where he'll visit Century Village, a condominium complex home to thousands of retirees, long a bastion of reliable Democratic voters. Obama and Democrats have warned that Romney would seek to implement a budget plan authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that includes an overhaul of Medicare that would change it into a voucher-like program for those who retire in 10 years.
"Under the Romney-Ryan budget, Florida seniors would be left on their own," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Obama was holding events on Friday in Fort Myers, along Florida's southwest coast, and in Orlando, the heart of the state's Interstate 4 corridor, which is home to many independent voters.