PORTSMOUTH, Ohio - Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan went back to school on Saturday to rally college students in all corners of all-important Ohio and hammer at President Barack Obama for going easy on China over unfair trade practices. Obama took precious time off the campaign trail to practice for the next debate against his GOP rival.
It was an unspoken acknowledgment of the importance that Obama attaches to upping his game in Debate No.2 that the president is largely dropping out of sight for five straight days in the final weeks of the race to prepare for Tuesday's encounter in Hempstead, N .Y.
Even while cloistered for debate prep at a sprawling resort in Williamsburg, Va., though, the president didn't completely cede the spotlight to Romney. His weekly radio and Internet address highlighted the Obama administration's work to revive the U.S. auto industry - a message aimed squarely at working-class voters in manufacturing-heavy states like Ohio.
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, Saturday.
Romney, for his part, told a crowd of more than 3,000 people at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth that Obama was ducking an important decision on whether China is manipulating its currency to gain a trade advantage. A decision was due on Monday, but the Treasury Department said Friday the decision won't come until after global finance officials meet in early November. That means a decision is unlikely before the Nov. 6 election.
"It's time for us to stand up to China for their cheating," Romney declared. "It's got to stop."
Romney framed the issue squarely as a matter of jobs, saying cheap Chinese products were driving American companies out of business.
"We've got to get those jobs back and make trade to be fair," Romney declared.
Ryan, too, criticized the administration for failing to hold China accountable for its trade practices. During a morning appearance in northeastern Ohio at Youngstown State University, he told a crowd of about 1,400 that his hometown of Janesville, Wis., was much like theirs - a "blue-collar, factory town" where the struggles of the auto industry hit home hard.
Ryan said the president had led the country toward a higher national debt, steeper taxes and insufficient job growth. "We can't keep going down this path," he said. "We can't keep accepting this is the new normal."
The Wisconsin congressman then hopscotched to Bowling Green State University, in the northwestern part of the state, where he grabbed a bratwurst with mustard at the college Republicans' tailgate party before the school's football team took on his alma mater, Miami (Ohio) University.
The Obama campaign dismissed the Republicans' tough talk on China as nothing more than talk. "Mitt Romney will never crack down on China's cheating - just look at his record," Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner said in a statement. He said Romney had opposed Obama administration efforts to impose tariffs on Chinese-made tires and had invested in companies that shipped American jobs to China.
Obama's campaign upped its celebrity quotient as the two sides claw for any advantage in a tight race: Actor Morgan Freeman's commanding voice narrates a new ad telling voters that Obama has met the nation's challenges and "the last thing we should do is turn back now."
On Thursday, Bruce Springsteen will team up with former President Bill Clinton to rally Obama voters in Parma, Ohio, in what will be the singer's first political appearance this campaign. "The Boss" plans a second event Thursday, in Ames, Iowa. Springsteen campaigned for Obama in 2008, too.
Both sides are devoting huge time and effort to Ohio, this year's battleground to end all battlegrounds, where polls show Obama with a slight edge over Romney. Saturday's emphasis by the two sides on the auto industry and manufacturing jobs was designed to connect with blue-collar voters there.