Romney seeks to undercut Obama's likability lead

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gestures during a campaign stop in Bowling Green, Ohio.

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As often happens in campaigns, the Republican message is multi-pronged, and possibly confusing to some voters. While Romney was using hot words like "attack and hatred" Wednesday, a super PAC that supports him — Americans for Prosperity — was airing a soft-touch TV ad in states including Ohio that lowered the temperature.

It shows former Obama supporters quietly expressing sadness and disappointment in the president's performance. One woman calls Obama "a great person," but says he has not earned re-election.

Still, the harsh tenor of much of the campaign has not gone unnoticed. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll last month found that negative views of both candidates were on the rise and that 22 percent believed Obama was running a more negative campaign, 12 percent said Romney was being more negative and 34 percent chose both.

In Dubuque Wednesday, the Obamas addressed more than 3,000 people outside the red-brick Alliant Energy Amphitheater along the Mississippi River. The first lady vouched for her husband, calling him the "son of a mother who struggled" and the grandson of a woman who hit the glass ceiling at her job at a bank, watching as men she trained were promoted ahead of her.

Two rallies in eastern Iowa brought the popular first lady to her husband's side, creating a polite back-and-forth between the couple on stage. The health-conscious Mrs. Obama teased her husband about his recent trip to the Iowa State Fair, asking him if he had a "fried Twinkie," prompting the president to tell her that he had a "pork chop and a beer."

On an economic issue, Obama offered his most direct defense of his handling of Medicare, offering a point-by-point version of how the two tickets would handle the health care program for the elderly.

"I have strengthened Medicare," Obama said, saying his administration proposed "reforms that will not touch your Medicare benefits, not by a dime." He said Romney and Ryan wanted to "turn Medicare into a voucher program" while his approach had extended the life of Medicare by a decade. "Their plan ends Medicare as we know it," Obama said.

In Charlotte, Romney repeated his claim that Obama would reduce Medicare benefits by $716 billion over 10 years. He did not mention that his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, has proposed the same savings, which are supposed to be realized through lower medical payments and great efficiencies in the program.

Some Romney surrogates expressed unease with the campaign's increasingly bitter tone. "This back-and-forth doesn't do either side or the country as well as it could," former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said on CNN.

But Pawlenty added a dig at Obama, saying, "We have a president who won't even disclaim an ad that accuses Mitt Romney of killing a gentleman's wife." He was referring to a pro-Democratic super PAC's ad in which a widower says he and his wife lost their health insurance when his employer was taken over by a company Romney helped direct.

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Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Dubuque, Iowa, and Julie Pace and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.

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