"(Obama) showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare," Santorum said during his speech to the Republican convention.
Diane Carnes of Chillicothe, Ohio, in the state's rural south, said there is a cultural disconnect with Obama. "Southern Ohio is full of people who are disgusted with this president walking away from welfare reform," said Carnes, a Republican. "We are working people, who believe in work."
Santorum vigorously dismissed suggestions of racial politics, although Carnes and other Republicans said some rural white voters in swing states still harbor racial opposition to Obama.
Obama's policies fall outside this bloc's comfort zone, said Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain's 2008 campaign.
"President Obama is totally out of touch with these people in a fundamental way," Schmidt said. "In this environment, Romney's team is wise to be focused on this group."
Romney was in Chillicothe, the heart of southern Ohio, last month, promising to loosen restrictions on oil, coal and natural gas development industries. That signals to many voters here the promise of well-paying jobs in counties where unemployment has run well above the state and national averages.
Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan is seen as another direct appeal. Ryan is from Janesville, Wis., a manufacturing hub between Madison, Wis., and Chicago.
"Remember when he said people in the Midwest, people like us like to cling to their guns and religion?" Ryan said of Obama while campaigning in Iowa this week. "This Catholic deer hunter is darn proud of that. Guilty as charged."
Many of these conservative Democrats helped elect Republican Ronald Reagan president in 1980.
But since then, a Republican has not won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Ryan's place on the ticket, and Romney's direct appeals to working-class whites, may not tip the state to the GOP in November, but they could force Obama to spend money to capture states critical to his re-election chances.
This voting bloc has shrunk dramatically as a share of the overall electorate, now more diverse and college-educated. In 1980, 63 percent of voters were white, non-college-educated. In 2008, they made up just 39 percent. And Obama performs far better with minority voters.
Obama, in turn, is trying to hold down Romney's margins. He talks about his wife Michelle's upbringing in a working-class home on Chicago's South Side.
His campaign is working to undercut the businessman Romney's jobs argument by contending that the private-sector experience Romney touts was often at the expense of working families. Romney's former private equity firm Bain Capital helped launch some national chains, but also shuttered some plants.
"I continue to believe Gov. Romney is going to struggle in all the Midwestern states given his stance on the issues," Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina said in an interview.
Obama also has two weapons in his arsenal and is deploying them strategically.
Vice President Joe Biden, long a popular figure to working-class Democrats, grew up in Scranton, Pa., and has jabbed hard at Romney's credibility with these voters.
"Out of touch? Swiss bank account, untold millions in the Cayman Islands. Who's out of touch, man?" Biden said recently.
Clinton stars in an Obama campaign ad and was the prime-time speaker at the convention on Wednesday night. Clinton's profile as a former Arkansas governor helped him as a candidate. His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, performed better than Obama with working-class whites in places like Pennsylvania and West Virginia during their battle for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Romney advisers said Clinton is the strongest counter-punch Obama has with these voters.
The former president went hard after them hard in his convention speech, using the term "middle class" no less than 10 times.