MILWAUKEE - President Barack Obama worked to quash Republican hopes for capturing a key Midwestern swing state on Saturday, pushing back against his rival's complaints about an overly intrusive government and drawing his biggest crowd of the campaign.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney took precious time away from campaigning in the battleground states to raise funds in California and kept up his criticism of the president for fostering a culture of dependency.
Obama enters the weekend with polls showing him in a near tie with Romney nationally. But a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist Poll shows the president with leads among likely voters of 8 percentage points in Iowa and 5 points each in Colorado and Wisconsin, all battleground states. Polls published earlier this week pointed to leads for Obama in Virginia and Ohio.
In a potential opening for Romney, new state-by-state unemployment numbers show upticks in August unemployment in five swing states.
These swing states do not reliably vote Democratic or Republican and are likely to decide the outcome of the Nov. 6 election. The president is chosen not by a nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina saw good signs all over, saying, "We're either tied or in the lead in every battleground state 45 days out. I think you will see a tightening in the national polls going forward."
Obama traveled Saturday to Wisconsin, a state that his campaign had considered safely in his column but which Obama aides seem eager to fortify in case Romney's running mate, Wisconsin native and congressman Paul Ryan, can erode the president's support.
It was Obama's first visit to Wisconsin since February. Obama's politicking included an unscheduled stop at a local deli, where he tried out some bratwurst in a pretzel roll with spicy mustard.
Obama won Wisconsin easily in 2008 but Ryan is popular here and recent polls have Obama up by single digits. The Republican Party showed its organizational strength in fending off efforts to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker, but Messina said Democrats "continue to have a strategic advantage," with more field offices and political infrastructure in the state.
Obama faulted Romney for advancing a top-down economic that "never works."
"The country doesn't succeed when only the folks at the very top are doing well," he told supporters at the Milwaukee Theater. "We succeed when the middle class is doing well."
Obama appealed to voters to help him break through partisan gridlock in Washington with pressure on Congress from the outside. He said that despite economic troubles, his administration has made progress and has made "practical and specific" proposals to create jobs.
"We've seen half a million new jobs in manufacturing, the fastest pace since the 1990s," he said. "And so the choice now is, do we reverse that progress or do we move forward?
Speaking later to an energized throng of 18,000 people in an at-times-rainy outdoor amphitheater, Obama made a point of renewing his pledge to create a million manufacturing jobs as he campaigned in a state whose manufacturing industry has been hard hit in recent years.
Romney, speaking at a fundraising event near San Diego, said Obama was "taking Americans on a course that is extremely foreign to us."
"One would suggest that government knows better than free people," he said. "It's a pathway to become like Europe, and Europe doesn't work there. It's never going to work here. It's even possible we could be on a pathway to become California - I don't want that either."
Romney, in his weekly podcast, said Obama's policies have created "a stagnant economy that fosters government dependency."
"My policies will create a growing economy that fosters upward mobility," he said.
In advance of Obama's visit, Romney's campaign made the argument that Obama's failure to turn around the economy had Wisconsin voters looking for a different path. The state's 7.5 percent unemployment rate is below the national average, but its manufacturing industry has been hit hard in recent years.
With just six weekends left before Election Day, both candidates were devoting considerable time to raising cash to continue bankrolling the deluge of ads already saturating hotly contested states.
Baseball great Hank Aaron supplied the star power at Obama's Milwaukee fundraisers.
"As one who wore the number 44 on his back for decades, I ask you to join me in helping the 44th president of the United States hit a grand slam," said Aaron, who played for the Milwaukee Braves and Brewers.
Romney is trying to recover his fundraising advantage. In August, for the first time in four months, Obama and the Democratic Party out-raised Romney and the Republican Party $114 million to $111.6 million.
Romney, who is expected to launch a more aggressive campaign schedule in the coming week, hunted for West Coast cash, if not votes, at a private fundraiser near San Diego and headed for another in Los Angeles. Some Republicans have grumbled that he's not spending enough time with voters in swing states.
Romney adviser Kevin Madden said the Republican nominee would begin "a really intense battleground state schedule." The former Massachusetts governor will campaign in Colorado, Ohio and Virginia in the coming week.
Romney's running mate campaigned Saturday in Florida, another pivotal state, appealing to Hispanic voters in Miami and talking space policy in Orlando.
Campaigning in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, Ryan faulted Obama for a "policy of appeasement" toward the Castro regime in Cuba, saying all the president had done was "reward more despotism."
Obama has eased restrictions to allow Americans to travel to Cuba and to let Cuban-Americans send money to family on the island. But the president has stopped well-short of discussing lifting the 50-year-old economic embargo, which is widely viewed in Latin America as a failure and has complicated U.S. relationships in the region.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jenn Psaki said the president had supported democracy movements on the island and worked to give people there more say in their futures.
In an appearance in Orlando, not far from Florida's space coast, Ryan criticized the president for putting the U.S. space program "on a path where we are conceding our global position as the unequivocal leader in space." The Obama campaign responded that Ryan has proposed deep cuts in spending for space exploration.
Underscoring the importance of grass-roots efforts in the campaign's final days, Vice President Joe Biden revved up union activists poised to canvass for votes in New Hampshire. He told supporters at a Teamsters union hall in Manchester, that their organizing work would be the "antidote" to millions spent on advertising by Republican-leaning super political action committees.
Biden said it was because of unions that the U.S. has a strong middle class, and he accused Romney and Ryan of "doubling down on everything that caused the economic crisis in the first place."