Obama Makes Populist Pitch to Hold Swing Voters in Virginia

President Barack Obama is trying to hold the once-solidly Republican state of Virginia by appealing to middle-income voters who he says Republican candidate Mitt Romney would sacrifice to help the wealthiest Americans.

Romney and congressional Republicans want to “keep tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires and folks like me who don’t need it,” Obama said in Hampton, Virginia, yesterday. “Michelle and I, our lives will not be better, Warren Buffett’s life is not going to be better if he gets that additional tax cut.”

Obama, without a teleprompter and relying only occasionally on notes, delivered the populist message on the first of two days he’s spending in the battleground state. He focused on his push to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for those families with an adjusted gross income of less than $250,000 and on military families.

Obama campaigned through the state’s so-called golden crescent: the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia south through Richmond and Hampton Roads, where most of the population is concentrated.

“If you believe that the recipe for economic growth is to give the 2 percent additional tax breaks, then by all means you should send those folks to Washington,” he said. “But that’s not what I believe, that’s not why I’m in office.”

Highlighting Differences

The message is intended to highlight his differences on economic policy with Romney, co-founder of the Boston-based private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC. Obama has accused Republicans of pursuing “top-down economics” that favor the wealthy and Romney of profiting from the loss of jobs in the U.S. to overseas competitors during his time at Bain.

Obama hit Romney on his private-equity work after questions were raised about when Romney left the firm.

Bain said Romney remained its sole stockholder and continued to be listed as the sole stockholder and in various executive positions in Securities and Exchange Commission filings even after leaving in 1999 to run the Winter Olympics. The company statement was released July 12 after a Boston Globe report about the SEC documents.

The timing has become an issue because Romney’s campaign responded to reports of Bain-owned companies laying off employees by saying the former Massachusetts governor wasn’t responsible for actions after his departure.

Answering Questions

Obama, in an interview yesterday with Washington television station WJLA, said Romney “attested to the SEC multiple times” that he was at the head of Bain.

“Most Americans figure if you are the chairman, CEO and president of a company that you are responsible for what that company does,” Obama said. “That’s probably a question that he’s going to have to answer, and I think that’s a legitimate part of the campaign.”

Romney, in interviews with the three major broadcast networks and cable channels CNN and Fox News, repeated that he had “no role” in Bain’s operations after leaving to run the Olympics accused Obama of trying to divert attention from the state of the U.S. economy.

“I left any responsibility whatsoever, any effort, any involvement whatsoever in the management of Bain Capital after February of 1999,” Romney said on ABC. He also said Obama’s campaign should apologize for a statement made by deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter suggesting Romney may have broken the law if he put incorrect information in the SEC filing.

Apology Demand

“The president needs to take control of these people,” Romney said. “He sure as heck ought to say that he’s sorry for the kinds of attacks that are coming from his team.”

Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a longtime Virginia political strategist who is working on Democrat Wayne Powell’s House race against Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, said the president’s populist message is working.

“Obama should stick with Bain Capital attacks,” he said. “Everybody in small-town Virginia feels like they’ve been taken advantage of.”

Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia since Lyndon Johnson did it in 1964, and capturing the state’s 13 Electoral College votes in November is part of the victory map for both Obama and Romney.

Targeting Virginia

While Obama took the state by 6 percentage points against Republican John McCain in 2008, both campaigns are forecasting a close contest this year. Obama held a 3 percentage point lead over Romney in an average of six polls taken since mid-May, as compiled by the website Real Clear Politics.

Virginia’s unemployment rate was 5.6 percent in May, down from a high of 7.3 percent in January 2010. By comparison, the rate nationally was 8.2 percent and hit 10 percent in October 2009.

Still, Virginia was among four electoral battleground states that showed declining economic health in the first three months of the year, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States. The index is based on the performance of local-company shares, tax collections, home prices, mortgage delinquencies, job growth and personal income.

Obama has been to Virginia 15 times since announcing his run for re-election in April 2011, and Romney has visited six times since announcing his candidacy in June 2011.

Energizing Voters

“When we win Virginia we’re going to have won the election,” Obama told the overflow crowd at Green Run High School in Virginia Beach, where he went yesterday after meeting with the spouses of service members at a local café.

Dustin Cable, a Charlottesville-based demographer for the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, said, the key to Virginia is going to be to energize white, college-educated voters in northern Virginia because that’s where most of the state’s population is concentrated.

The president is doing that today, heading to Chantilly and Centreville, a Washington suburb that Obama won 72 percent to McCain’s 27 percent in 2008. He’ll also go to Richmond and Glen Allen, outside of Richmond. He beat McCain 79 percent to 20 percent in Richmond city.

“Romney is sure using the economy as a persuasive tool, he could actually get some of these white northern Virginia voters that Obama won last time,” Cable said.

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