President Barack Obama is trying to synthesize his pitch to voters in a single word: Forward.
Republican Mitt Romney has another word for a second Obama term: Europe.
The rivals for the White House laid out their economic plans in duelling discourses on Thursday that marked the opening round in a more intense phase of the presidential race, one driven by a dead heat in the polls and a growing sense in both Democratic and Republican circles that Mr. Obama is losing momentum.
Mr. Obama used a major speech in the pivotal swing state of Ohio to contrast his call for tax increases on the wealthy and more public spending on education and infrastructure with the tax cuts and shrunken state promised by Mr. Romney. He warned the GOP approach proved a disaster for the middle class in the past and would again.
But the President's Thursday speech, which followed a bumpy patch of poor economic news and friendly fire from his allies, failed to allay doubts among some Democrats about whether he has found the right tone for an electorate weary of economic stasis.
And despite the clarity of the “Forward” tagline splashed across his lectern, a characteristically wordy Mr. Obama was nowhere near as concise.
“What's holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views of which direction America should take,” Mr. Obama said in his 6,000-word address. “And this election is your chance to break that stalemate.”
In a “pre-buttal” speech that was only half as long but aimed at capturing an equal share of the media spotlight, Mr. Romney mocked the President as “long on words, short on action.” And he charged a second Obama term would push the country closer to the cliff.
“It leads to chronic high unemployment, like Europe has; low wage growth, like Europe has; and potential fiscal calamity, like we're seeing at the doorstep of Europe today,” Mr. Romney, who had also travelled to Ohio, said of the Obama approach of “bigger and bigger government and taking more and more from the American people.”
Though he started out as an overwhelming favourite, especially while Mr. Romney remained tangled in a damaging GOP nomination race, Mr. Obama has seen his odds of being re-elected slide to a slim 53 per cent, according to the online prediction market, Intrade.
Weak job growth in May and the blow suffered by Democrats in their bid to recall Wisconsin's GOP Governor created election angst in the White House. And friendly fire from fellow Democrats put Mr. Obama's campaign strategists on the defensive.
Former president Bill Clinton recently questioned the wisdom of the Obama campaign's attempts to discredit Mr. Romney's credentials, saying a “man who has been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold” to be President.
And this week, a leaked memo by a trio of Democratic strategists that included former Clinton adviser James Carville warned the party could face “an impossible headwind in November” unless Mr. Obama aligned his economic message with the anxiety of voters.
“These voters are not convinced we are headed in the right direction. They are living in a new economy and there is no conceivable recovery in the year ahead that will change the view of the new state of the country,” the memo said.
Mr. Carville and his colleagues suggested that Mr. Obama should revamp his economic pitch with “minimal discussion of the recovery and jobs created and maximal empathy for the challenges people face.”
The President appeared to only partially follow that advice in Thursday's speech, contrasting continued stagnation in Europe with steady American growth on his watch.
“We acted fast. Our economy started growing again six months after I took office and it has continued to grow for the last three years,” Mr. Obama said. “Our businesses have gone back to basics and created over four million jobs in the past 27 months.”
With nine million jobs lost in the recession, Mr. Obama conceded more needs to be done. But he warned the Republican recipe for job creation – consisting of tax cuts and rolling back regulations on “banks and polluters” – would further decimate the middle class.
On Wednesday, Mr. Romney, whose new campaign slogan is “Putting Jobs First,” blamed Mr. Obama for the “most anti-investment, anti-business, anti-jobs series of policies in modern American history.” In Thursday's speech, he upped the ante.
“Almost everything the President has done has made it harder for entrepreneurs to start a business, has made it less likely for businesses … to be able to hire people,” he said, citing the Obama stimulus law, health-care reform and the stalled Keystone XL pipeline from Canada. “If I have to build it myself to get it here, I'll get that oil into America.”
American voters, at least rhetorically, have a clear choice to make in November.