ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The presidential campaigns moved Saturday toward translating the energy of their respective party conventions into shoring up support among critical interest groups they will need to turn out at the polls in big numbers.
President Obama launched a two-day bus tour Saturday through the heart of Florida, the largest swing state, making an appeal to Hispanics, as well as senior citizens he hopes are turned off by the Republican position on Medicare.
GOP nominee Mitt Romney, meanwhile, campaigned in Virginia Beach with a patriotic pitch in a region rich with military families, hoping to reassure them amid criticism that he failed to mention U.S. troops in Afghanistan during his nomination acceptance speech in Tampa the week before.
Speaking at the Military Aviation Museum, Romney said he would “rebuild America’s military might” and restore proposed cuts to defense programs.
The $100 billion worth of defense and non-defense cuts were part of a deal reached by the White House and House Republicans last summer to force lawmakers to rein in the national debt. Romney has pinned the blame on Obama, citing excerpts from a new book by Bob Woodward to support his assertion that the proposed cuts were the president’s idea.
“Our troops have been stretched to the breaking point in the conflicts they’ve been enduring, and our hearts go to those that are in far-off places today, particularly those in Afghanistan who are in harm’s way,” Romney said. “We love them, we respect them, we honor their sacrifice. . . . I will not cut our military. I will maintain our military commitment.”
Romney also played to Christian conservatives by breaking into the Pledge of Allegiance and noting, in a dig at Democrats, that the pledge includes the phrase “under God.” Democrats had not included a reference to God in their convention platform this past week in Charlotte until Obama instructed them to include it.
“I will not take God out of . . . our platform,” Romney said. “I will not take God off our coins, and I will not take God out of my heart.”
Hoping to blunt any momentum his rival has picked up in Florida since the GOP convention, Obama opened his bus trip in the Interstate 4 corridor, which cuts through the center of the state from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic, with a rally for 11,000 in St. Petersburg, not far from Tampa. Obama’s 30-minute speech closely tracked his nomination acceptance speech Thursday in Charlotte.
His campaign has attacked Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for their plan to partially privatize Medicare. Obama aides have said they believe Florida’s sizable elderly population will reject that path.
“I will never turn Medicare into a voucher system,” the president told the crowd. “No American should have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies. People should retire with the dignity and respect and the care that they have earned.”
Romney and Ryan have parried the Obama campaign’s attacks by saying that the president is taking $700 billion from Medicare to pay for his health-care law. But the president’s aides have emphasized that those funds will be found by savings from health-care providers.
“So, yes, we will reform and strengthen Medicare for the long term,” Obama said. “That needs to be done, but we’re going to do it by reducing the cost of health care, not by just dumping costs on seniors.”
Obama then hopped in his bus and traveled east, stopping for lunch at a diner where he ordered five Cuban sandwiches for himself and his staff, along with “whatever else you think will make for an outstanding lunch.”
Hundred of thousands of Puerto Ricans who live in Central Florida are a key voter group for both sides, with former Republican governor Jeb Bush, popular among the state’s Puerto Ricans, helping to make the case for Romney.
Obama’s campaign so far has failed to win over as many Puerto Ricans as it needs, according to one of the campaign’s pollsters, Sergio Bendixen. He exhorted a meeting of Hispanic delegates to last week’s Democratic National Convention to step up their efforts, using a PowerPoint of recent polling data to show Obama falling short among Puerto Ricans.
He reported that Obama leads Romney among Puerto Ricans in Florida, 54-32 – a majority, but still not enough.
“We need to get that number into the seventies,” Bendixen said.
The candidates were playing heavily to their bases at a time when polls show that there are not huge numbers of undecided voters — between 6 percent and 10 percent of the voters have said they might change their minds between now and Nov. 6.
The economy remains sluggish and the campaign has been relentlessly negative, so the challenge of motivating voters to turn out on Election Day remains high. Both sides have begun to focus on early voting, which begins in the swing state of Ohio on Sept. 27 and in other swing states shortly after.
In two weeks, Virginians will be able to cast early ballots, and the Romney campaign plans to focus on the economy in making its case. At 5.9 percent, the state’s unemployment rate is well below the national average, yet Romney will continue to center his argument on the possibility of impending cuts to the defense industry.
In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” that will air Sunday morning, Romney said it was a “big mistake” for House Republicans to agree to the plan last summer to raise the debt ceiling, a plan that included the looming defense cuts initially proposed by the White House.
“The president was responsible for coming out with specific changes they’d make to the defense budget,” Romney said, according to an excerpt of the interview released by NBC. The details of the proposed cuts were “supposed to have come out this last week. He has violated the law that he in fact signed. The American people need to understand how it is that our defense is going to be so badly cut.”
Peter Wallsten in Washington contributed to this report.