By Jessica Yellin, Paul Steinhauser and Adam Aigner-Treworgy
COLUMBUS, Ohio (CNN) — President Barack Obama used the first official rally of his re-election bid to highlight the accomplishments made during his three and a half years in the White House, and to make a case for a second term in office.
“We are making progress and now we face a choice, Ohio,” said the president, at a rally at the Schottenstein Center on the campus of The Ohio State University in Columbus. “This is a make or break moment for the middle class, and we can’t turn back now.”
In his 36-minute-long address, Obama tied presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to Republicans in Congress, saying that if elected, Romney would rubber-stamp the congressional GOP agenda, telling the crowd that “we cannot give him that chance.”
“That’s the choice in this election, and that’s why I’m running for a second term as president of the United States,” added Obama.
The speech highlighted the narrative that the Obama campaign hopes to push this year: reminding voters how many millions of jobs were lost before the president took office.
The president said that in the final six months of 2008, “nearly three million of our neighbors lost their jobs.”
But he said when he took office, “we didn’t quit. We don’t quit. Together we are fighting our way back.”
Obama touted the federal government’s rescue of the big auto companies, and he criticized his challenger, saying “when some wanted to let Detroit go bankrupt, we didn’t turn our backs.”
“Today, America’s auto industry is on top of the world,” he said.
The former Massachusetts governor, who was born in Michigan and whose father was a former auto executive and governor of the state, opposed the bailout, saying a structured bankruptcy could have achieved the same result without the massive cost to the U.S. government. Moreover, he has argued the Obama administration made too many concessions to auto unions as part of the bailout.
The arena, which holds seating for around 20,000 people, appeared to be around two-thirds to three-quarters full, with around half of the seating in the upper deck empty. The Columbus fire department estimated the crowd size at 14,000. While smaller in size than many of the Obama rallies held during the 2008 campaign, the crowd drawfed the size of any rally held this cycle by Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
The Romney campaign put out a prebuttal in advance of the president’s speech, which was titled “Moving America Forward.”
“When President Obama kicks off his campaign today in Columbus, he still needs to answer for the promises he made to Ohioans nearly four years ago. From skyrocketing gas prices to increasing insurance premiums, President Obama’s economic policies have failed Ohio families and demonstrated that this President does not have what it takes to get our economy moving again,” said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams, who was at the Obama rally.
Prior to Saturday’s rally, the president had made 20 trips to Ohio since taking office. Romney returns to Ohio Monday, his third trip to the Buckeye State in three weeks.
Ohio’s unemployment level stands at 7.5%, slightly lower than the national average of 8.1%. Ohio has become a crucial battleground state in recent presidential elections. The Buckeye State put President George W. Bush over the top in his 2004 re-election. Four years ago, Obama won Ohio by five points over Sen. John McCain of Arizona (52%-47%).
The most recent public opinion poll in Ohio, released earlier this week by Quinnipiac University, indicated a tie between Obama and Romney. According to the survey, 44% of registered voters supported Obama, with 42% backing Romney. The president’s two point margin was well with in the poll’s sampling error.
Following the speech in Ohio, the president departed for Virginia, another crucial battleground state. Obama will hold a similar rally later Saturday at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.