By NEDRA PICKLER and STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Presidential politics reignited in the wake of natural disaster Thursday, with the candidates beginning their full-throttle closing arguments with new vigor on the same pocketbook concerns that have dominated the campaign from the start.
President Barack Obama, Republican rival Mitt Romney, their wives and running mates were blitzing across the country in the busiest day of campaign events yet. The six principals were hitting seven swing states that will help determine on Tuesday which man will occupy the White House for the next four years.
After avoiding criticism of Obama by name for a full day after Superstorm Sandy, Romney aides said Thursday it was game on. That was evident as Romney stood in front of a semitrailer cab emblazoned with the logo of the Roanoke, Va., window and door factory hosting his first rally of the day.
Romney opened a new criticism of Obama's suggestion in an interview earlier this week with MSNBC that he would create a secretary of business. "We don't need a secretary of business to understand business, we need a president who understands business, and I do," he said. Romney's crowd seemed as charged as he was, interrupting with frequent whoops of applause and chants of "Five more days!"
Obama also focused on the economy, arguing that Romney is not the agent of change he is trying to portray himself as and asking for four more years to complete his work. His closing argument stump speech is heavy on nostalgia harkening back to his hopeful 2008 campaign and even the days when President Bill Clinton led Americans to better economic times.
"By the end Bill Clinton's second term America had created 23 million new jobs, and incomes were up and poverty was down and our deficit became the biggest surplus in our history," Obama said. "So Wisconsin, we know the ideas that work."
No one was hitting the ground harder in the final days than Clinton, who acted as a surrogate campaigner in chief while Obama was off the trail and had four stops scheduled Thursday in Wisconsin and Ohio. Clinton and Obama planned to appear together along with singer Dave Matthews on Friday night in Bristow, Va.
Thursday's quickened campaign pace forced a crisscross of overlapping paths. Obama and Romney's running mate were trading places later in the day, with the president flying from Las Vegas to Colorado and Paul Ryan making the opposite journey. Meanwhile, Ann Romney and Clinton were circling each other across battleground Ohio, with just about 25 miles between them for appearances planned at the same time Thursday evening near Akron. Both also planned events less than 50 miles apart in central Ohio.
Vice President Joe Biden took time out from morning campaigning in Iowa to tape the "Top Ten" list to air on the David Letterman show Thursday night.
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Obama's campaign is seeking to make up for the time lost to Sandy with a heavy travel itinerary in the coming days, including rallies Thursday in Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado. Before traveling to Wisconsin, Obama held a storm briefing at the White House with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate and other administration officials, and the White House said Obama would stay in touch with Fugate and local officials affected by the storm throughout the day.
Romney's aides concede that the storm stalled his momentum to the finish line but insist that internal polling shows they have leads in battleground states like Virginia, Florida, Colorado and North Carolina. But their specific path to 270 electoral votes is still unclear without Ohio or Wisconsin, where aides did not offer the same measure of confidence on Thursday.
Romney is set to campaign in both states in the coming days.
Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter predicted victory in Ohio and Wisconsin and argued during an appearance on "The Daily Rundown" on MSNBC that Obama was tied or ahead in Florida polling and that they were counting on victory there. She mentioned that Obama was visiting all the swing states in the coming days - but notably absent from his schedule is a stop in North Carolina, suggesting the president's campaign agrees with Romney aides that it is a likely Republican victory.
Romney's attack on Obama's proposed secretary of business was coordinated with a new television advertisement. "His solution to everything is to add another bureaucrat," the ad says, then touts Romney's experience as a businessman as evidence that he would do a better job of improving the economy.
The ad doesn't mention that Obama floated the idea of the new post as a way to consolidate nine agencies dealing with business concerns and eliminate bureaucracy. It also ignored a growing body of positive economic indicators that continued to emerge Thursday - unemployment benefit claims down, worker productivity up, auto sales rising, home builders increasing construction, manufacturing expansion, gains in retail sales and consumer confidence at the highest level since a year before Obama took office.
October's jobs figures, the last broad snapshot of the economy before the election, were to be released Friday.
The Obama campaign released a new TV ad touting former Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent endorsement, and another blasting Romney's claim that auto companies are shipping jobs to China. "GM calls Romney's ads `politics at its cynical worst,' and Chrysler's CEO said it's simply not true," says a narrator. The ad will air in Michigan and Ohio - two competitive states where auto politics have been front and center.
Mitt Romney's campaign also began quietly running a Spanish-language ad in Florida that tries to tie Obama to notorious Latin American leaders. The ad, first reported by The Miami Herald, is airing at least in the Miami area.
It shows a clip of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saying that if he were American, "I'd vote for Obama." Chavez did say that in September, when he also called Obama "a good guy." There's a similar clip featuring Cuban leader Fidel Castro's niece Mariela, who has no official link to the Cuban government. She's a noted advocate of gay rights and has praised Obama's stand in support of same sex marriage.
The American Future Fund, an Iowa-based independent group that backs Republican candidates, announced Thursday it would spend $4 million on TV ads in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio to support Romney. One ad is a direct appeal to women voters, while the other features excerpts from Romney's strong performance in the first presidential debate.
AFF is the latest Republican-leaning group to air commercials in Pennsylvania and Michigan, two states Romney and his allies are hoping to make competitive in the campaign's closing days. The Obama team has responded with ads in both states while campaign officials insist both are strongly in the president's column. ---
Pickler contributed to this report from Washington. Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Green Bay, Wis.; Josh Lederman and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington; Matthew Daly in Davenport, Iowa; Beth Fouhy in New York; and Kasie Hunt in Roanoke, Va., contributed to this report.