By KEN THOMAS and STEVE PEOPLES
EUCLID, Ohio - Targeting middle-class voters, President Barack Obama on Monday unveiled a sweeping $25 million, nine-state ad campaign whose centerpiece is a commercial portraying him as the steward of an economic comeback and confronting Republican criticism that recovery has sputtered on his watch.
"We're not there yet," the ad says. "It's still too hard, for too many. But we're coming back. Because America's greatness comes from a strong middle class. Because you don't quit, and neither does he."
Countering from hard-hit Ohio, Republican Mitt Romney argued that Obama's policies are squeezing middle-income Americans and that his business background could help jumpstart the economy.
"The president and I have fairly different visions for what it'll take to get America working again," the former Massachusetts governor said.
The competing economic visions - and the huge Obama investment in TV advertising in battleground states - are shaping a White House race that new surveys suggest is competitive six months before Election Day. A poll of voters in a dozen swing states by USA Today and Gallup found Obama and Romney essentially even among registered voters - Obama 47 percent, Romney 45 percent.
Just weeks old, the Obama-Romney race is playing out in a country in which unemployment is hovering around 8 percent and where many voters are not feeling growth that economists insist is occurring
Monday's announcement of the new advertising effort came just days after Obama opened the latest phase in his White House re-election effort with a pair of rallies in politically important Virginia and Ohio.
The sheer scope of the ad effort - $25 million in one month in the battlegrounds of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida and Colorado - illustrates the huge advantage the incumbent Democrat has over Romney. Obama is tapping into a campaign bank account of more than $100 million to pay for his big opening salvo in the TV ad wars while Romney scurries to catch up after a costly and contentious primary season. The presumptive GOP nominee is relying on outside groups - like the pro-Romney Restore Our Future political action committee - to keep him competitive on the air against Obama's behemoth campaign.
Liberal-leaning groups were getting a boost of their own from billionaire financier George Soros, whose staff told supporters Monday that he would be donating $1 million to the advocacy group America Votes and another $1 million to the super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. American Bridge is a research group that supports Obama's re-election effort.
In the 60-second ad, Obama tries to paint a picture of a nation turning the page on a difficult decade.
The ad traces America's economic landscape from late 2008 and the massive economic downturn that crippled the U.S. economy, with housing foreclosures, job losses and the financial crisis. "The economy spiraling down ... all before this president took the oath," it says. "Some said our best days were behind us. But not him."
"He believed in us, fought for us," the ad says as it highlights jobs being created, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 2001 terrorist attacks, and the return of U.S. troops from a lengthy war in Iraq in Obama's first term.
It could be considered Obama's take on President Ronald Reagan's patriotic "Morning in America" theme, yet with a gritty undertone. It juxtaposes images of unemployed workers and home foreclosure signs with workers assembling cars, a girl jumping into the arms of her soldier father and a woman working behind a cash register. But, despite the optimistic tone, the ad overlooks the challenges Obama faces in selling the message that the economy is improving.
Economic data released last week show his hurdles. The economy added just 115,000 jobs in April, far below monthly totals from December 2011 through February 2012 when the economy grew at a faster pace. While the unemployment rate inched down to 8.1 percent, the decline was largely attributed to more people who had stopped looking for work. People who are no longer looking for jobs are not counted as unemployed.
By emphasizing Obama's record, the new ad showed that Obama's advisers recognize he can't win a second term simply by attacking Romney's record in business and as Massachusetts governor. Instead, the ads are aimed at making a compelling case that despite the economic hardships faced by millions of Americans, Obama is the best overseer of the economy.
The advertising push includes large ad buys in multiple markets in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Colorado, and will cover a number of 30-second and 60-second spots running into early June.
In a conference call with reporters, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign, said the campaign would devote its May advertising to a positive message touting Obama's accomplishments but was prepared to respond to criticism from "the Karl and Koch brothers' contract killers over there in super PAC land."
It was a reference to outside groups linked to Karl Rove, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, and the heads of Koch Industries, longtime supporters of conservative causes. Obama has responded to a handful of critical ads in recent months with his own defensive spots, and Axelrod criticized the GOP-leaning groups even though the White House has signaled to Democratic donors that they too should donate to Democratic-leaning super PACs.
While Obama let his campaign ad shape the race Monday, Romney headed to suburban Cleveland. He softened his tone at times, sharing the stories of struggling Americans he's met on the campaign trail and countering the notion that he came from a privileged background. He said his father, a former auto executive, never had the time or money to get a college degree and his parents "couldn't afford a fancy honeymoon" when they married.
During Romney's town hall meeting, a woman said in a question to Romney that Obama had strayed from the principles of the Constitution and "should be tried for treason." Romney did not respond to her suggestion of treason but told reporters later that "no, of course" the president should not be tried for such an offense.
On Tuesday he was heading to Michigan, the state where he grew up and has identified as a potential Republican pickup, and on Wednesday to Colorado, where Obama staged the 2008 Democratic National Convention and captured electoral votes a few months later. He was to visit the state capitals of Lansing and Denver.
Romney, the expected GOP nominee, was expected to add more delegates to his haul from Tuesday's primaries in North Carolina, Indiana and West Virginia. He has 856 delegates, according to The Associated Press' count, nearly 300 delegates short of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination.
Obama, for his part, was taking his economic message to events in Albany, N.Y., on Tuesday, and Reno, Nev., on Friday. He also was holding fundraisers later in the week in Seattle and Los Angeles, where he was attending a high-dollar dinner at the home of actor George Clooney.
Thomas reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Stephen Ohlemacher and Jack Gillum in Washington contributed to this report.