By DAVID ESPO and KEN THOMAS
MIAMI - President Barack Obama cast Mitt Romney on Thursday as an out-of-touch challenger for the White House and an advocate of education cuts that could cause teacher strikes to spread from Chicago to other cities. The Republican countered that the U.S. economy "is bumping along the bottom" under the current administration and he predicted victory in the fall.
The two men eyed each other across hotly contested Florida, a state with 29 electoral votes, more than any other battleground in the close race for the White House.
"When you express an attitude that half the country considers itself victims, that somehow they want to be dependent on government, my thinking is maybe you haven't gotten around a lot," the president said. That was in response to a question about Romney's recent observation that 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax and believe they are victims and entitled to an array of federal benefits.
Obama spoke at a town hall-style forum aired by the Spanish-language television network Univision.
For his part, Romney was eager to move past that controversy, which has knocked him off stride. He disclosed plans for a three-day bus tour early next week through Ohio with running mate Paul Ryan and sought to return the campaign focus to the economic issues that have dominated the race all year.
At a fundraiser in Sarasota, Fla., Romney looked ahead to his televised head-to-head encounters with Obama this fall. "He's a very eloquent speaker, and so I'm sure in the debates, as last time ... he'll be very eloquent in describing his vision," the Republican said. "But he can't win by his words, because his record speaks so loudly in our ears. What he has done in the last four years is establish an economy that's bumping along the bottom."
Less than seven weeks before Election Day, polls make the race a close one, likely to be settled in eight or so swing states where neither man has a solid edge. Obama has gained ground in polls in some of those states since the completion of the Democratic National Convention two weeks ago, while Romney has struggled with controversies of his own making that have left Republicans frustrated at his performance as a candidate.
Still, there were fresh signs of weakness in the nation's job market as the two candidates vied for support in Florida.
The Labor Department said the number of Americans seeking unemployment fell only slightly last week, to a seasonally adjusted level of 382,000, suggesting that businesses remain reluctant to add to their payrolls. The four-week average rose for the fifth straight week to the highest level in nearly three months.
After more than two days of struggle, Romney seemed eager to leave the 47 percent controversy behind as he appeared at the Univision forum Wednesday night. '"My campaign is about the 100 percent in America," he said firmly.
But Obama made his most extensive comments to date on the subject since the emergence of a video showing Romney telling donors last May that as a candidate his job wasn't to worry about 47 percent of the country.
"Their problem is not they're not working hard enough or they don't want to work or they're being taxed too little or they just want to loaf around and gather government checks," the president said."
"Are there people that abuse the system? Yes, both at the bottom and at the top," he added, including millionaires who he said pay no income taxes. He said many at the low end of the income scale pay other forms of taxes, and some who don't pay taxes are senior citizens, students, disabled, veterans or soldiers who are stationed overseas.
"Americans work hard, and if they are not working right now I promise you they want to go to work," he said.
As for education, the president said Romney and running mate Ryan advocate a budget that would cut federal funds for schools by about 20 percent.
"And you could see potentially even more teachers being laid off, working conditions for teachers becoming even worse and potentially for more strikes," he said.
The president added that under his administration, "what we say to school districts all across the country is we will provide you with more help as long as you're being accountable, and as far as teachers go, I think they work as hard as anybody, but we also want to make sure that they are having high standards of performance in math and science."
Among other changes, Republicans favor repealing a 2010 change in the program that made the federal government the direct lender for student loans, replacing private banks. Democrats say a decrease in administrative fees made more money available for loans, while Republicans argue the change has raised the government's debt.
Money was not a significant issue in the Chicago strike. Mayor Rahm Emanuel secured an extension of the school day and empowered principals to hire the teachers they want. Teachers were able to soften a new evaluation process and win some job protections.
Obama, who ran on a message of changing the partisan tone in Washington, told the Univision audience that he had come to the conclusion that "you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside." He went on to say that what he had accomplished since taking office was due to mobilizing "the American people to speak out."
Romney seized on the remarks to say that Obama had surrendered in the face of a broken Washington and major challenges. "I can change Washington. I will change Washington," he told supporters in Florida. "We'll get the job done from the inside - Republicans and Democrats will come together. He can't do it. His slogan was 'Yes, we can.' His slogan now is 'No, I can't.' This is time for a new president."
The day's campaign events showed the complexities of campaigning in Florida, a state that is home to large populations of seniors and of Hispanics.
Romney released a new television commercial designed to appeal to both groups.
It features Sen. Marco Rubio plugging the Republicans' plan to overhaul Medicare, a flashpoint in the campaign that Obama says could threaten future beneficiaries with high out-of-pocket costs.
Saying his mother is 81, Rubio declares in the ad: "We can save Medicare without changing hers, but only if younger Americans accept that our Medicare will be different than our parents', when we retire in 30 years.
"But after all they did for us, isn't that the least we can do?"
While Obama is likely to win the Hispanic vote overwhelmingly, he drew criticism in his appearance.
He said the lack of immigration reform legislation was his biggest failure as president and "not for a lack of trying or desire." He said he couldn't find a single Republican to help work on the legislation. "I'm happy to take responsibility for being naive here," the president said when pressed to admit he broke his promise.
Univision anchor Jorge Ramos interjected: "You promised us, and a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn't keep that promise."
Obama drew praise from Hispanic groups earlier in the year when he announced a policy shift that will allow some immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children to avoid deportation.
Romney has been critical of the change, but has declined to say if he would reverse it if he wins the White House.
In a report filed with the Federal Election Commission, the challenger's campaign said that as of Aug. 31, it had about $50 million available to spend in the final two months of the race. It also reported a bank debt of $15 million, of which officials say $4 million has been repaid.