Republican Mitt Romney took a sharper argument to Ohio on Wednesday, trying to reframe the election as a “very dramatic choice” at a moment when recent polls have put him at a disadvantage in this crucial state and elsewhere.

But President Obama was right behind his challenger in Ohio, making clear in two tough-talking speeches of his own that he is intent on blocking Romney’s efforts to reverse his flagging fortunes here.

“I don’t think we’re going to get very far if we’ve got leaders who write off half the nation as a bunch of victims who don’t take responsibility for their own lives,” Obama said, referring to Romney’s controversial remarks at a private fundraiser in which he said 47 percent of Americans see themselves as victims.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Ohio, and I haven’t seen a lot of victims. I see a lot of hardworking Ohioans,” the president said to a crowd of 6,000 at Kent State University. “I see students trying to work their way through college. I see single moms, like my mom, putting in overtime to raise their kids right. I see senior citizens who have been saving their entire lives for retirements, veterans who served this country bravely, soldiers who defend our freedom today.”

Romney began the second day of his Ohio bus tour by arguing that his policies would do more to help the middle class and the millions of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet.

“I do not want an intrusive, massive, larger-debt-spending government that crushes the American Dream,” Romney said. “You guys, this matters. Look, this matters — this really matters. The choice we make is going to determine what kind of take-home pay people in America have. It’s going to determine what kind of jobs we have. It’s also going to determine whether our kids are confident and you’re confident in your kids and in their future.”

Describing the election as a “choice” is a departure for Romney — a sign that he is trying to reframe the debate at a difficult moment for him with just six weeks until Election Day. The new argument is also a concession that Romney’s prior strategy to cast the election as a referendum on Obama has not worked. And it is risky, because all along Obama has portrayed the election as a choice, promising to strengthen the economy by helping the middle class and preserving the programs that give Americans opportunity, and accusing Romney of wanting to help only the wealthiest Americans.

Again in Ohio on Wednesday, Obama drummed into his audi­ences his support for student loans, workforce training, the auto industry bailout and veterans benefits, and mocked Romney’s proposal to give tax relief to the wealthiest Americans, his opposition to the auto bailout and the new health-care law, and his support for deep federal budget cuts.

“This is important, because you’ve got a big choice to make,” the president told an earlier crowd at Bowling Green State University. “And it’s not just a choice between two parties or two candidates. It is a choice between two funda­mentally different paths for America, two fundamentally different ­choices for our future.”

Romney, after receiving a warm introduction by legendary golfer and Ohio native Jack Nicklaus, ­appeared energized as he spoke to supporters at a high school gymnasium in Westerville, a suburb of Columbus and a critical swing area. He drew sharp distinctions between his and Obama’s policies on energy, health care, taxes and government spending.

Romney also held a roundtable discussion about the economy and manufacturing policies. His guest speakers were all owners, presidents or corporate treasurers of Ohio companies.

Asked whether any rank-and-file workers or middle managers were invited, campaign spokesman Rick Gorka said no. He explained that it is business owners who have to figure out how to make payroll and to decide whether to hire or fire workers.

Obama won the crowd-count wars Wednesday, speaking to more than 5,500 in Bowling Green and more than 6,000 in Kent. Romney’s three events attracted 2,000, 1,500 and 3,600, respectively. But they were enthusiastic, too: In Toledo, supporters interrupted him with chants of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” At an earlier event, they stood rapt as his biographical video played.

Perhaps Obama’s toughest line Wednesday was on China. The president has spoken at length about his efforts to crack down on unfair trade practices in China, particularly when he visits Ohio, where the automobile industry and other manufacturers rely heavily on exports. Obama accused Romney of profiting from investments in Chinese companies and of adopting a “newfound outrage” about trade policy now that he’s a candidate for political office.

“When you see these ads promising to get tough on China, it feels like the fox saying, ‘You know, we need more secure chicken coops.’ I mean, it’s just not credible,” Obama said.

The candidates’ dueling Ohio schedules on opposite sides of the state Wednesday underscores the importance of the state and its 18 electoral votes. No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio.

It was Obama’s 29th visit to Ohio during his presidency and his 13th this year. And he is showing no signs of letting up despite new polls by The Washington Post and ­Quinnipiac University-New York Times-CBS News that show him leading in the Buckeye State.

With early voting set to begin in Ohio on Tuesday, Obama used his speech to urge supporters to actually vote. “Don’t boo. Vote,” he admonished the crowd several times when he criticized Romney.

Obama also promoted one of his campaign’s Web pages, www.
, which helps voters figure out how to register to vote and where to cast their ballots.

Romney didn’t emphasize get-out-the-vote urgency, but Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who introduced him at the morning rally in Westerville, said: “I’ve got a question: How many of you still have an application for an absentee ballot? Let’s see those hands, you’ve got to do it, we have those applications here today. Do it for yourself, do it for your friends, do it for your neighbors, do it for the folks you go to work with. Help people vote. We need to bag those votes, don’t we? We’ve got to win this one.”

Gardner and Rucker both reported from Ohio.