DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are making hard sells to working-class and female voters while raising the volume on their criticism to fire up the party base and cast the other as an extremist.
Romney's team thrust welfare into the campaign with an ad claiming that Obama planned to dole out taxpayer dollars to anyone, even those not trying to find work. For his part, Obama was set to appear Wednesday with Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University student who became a flashpoint for women's health and, by proxy, abortion rights.
Romney is set for a Wednesday morning rally in Des Moines before flying back to the New York City area to raise more cash for his already sizable campaign accounts. Obama is heading westward to Colorado to make the case to voters, especially women, that he should be re-elected in November.
Romney warned voters that Obama was undoing welfare reforms President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996 by offering waivers to states. His campaign sees Obama's decision as an opportunity to argue that the president is a liberal who wants to give the poor a free pass at the expense of the middle class.
White House spokesman Jay Carney blasted Romney's assertions as "categorically false and blatantly dishonest." The White House said Obama wanted to give states the flexibility they had been seeking to tailor the program to their needs.
Some conservatives fear the increased latitude could allow states to get around the work requirements, which were a key element of the welfare overhaul under Clinton. But the former president himself weighed in, saying in a statement that the assertion in Romney's ad was "not true" and the ad misleading.
The welfare issue as pushed by the Romney campaign appeared to be aimed at blue-collar, working-class whites in a weak economy and suggested that Obama might be gaining ground politically with his position on taxes.
The setting for the comments mattered almost as much as the language. Romney was campaigning in Iowa, where six electoral votes are up for grabs. Strategists from both parties envision a close election in the state that, in some ways, launched both Romney and Obama.
Four years ago, Obama won Iowa's leadoff Democratic caucuses en route to his party's presidential nomination. He went on to carry Iowa in the general election against Republican Sen. John McCain.
Yet when Obama won the state four years ago, Democrats had a 105,000-voter registration advantage. Republicans now hold a 21,589 voter advantage and are more bullish on their chances.
Romney, too, won his party's Iowa caucuses — at least for a while. Election officials later reversed the call and gave Sen. Rick Santorum the upset. By then, Romney had momentum after another strong showing in New Hampshire.
Obama plans to spend three days in Iowa next week, a signal that his advisers see the Midwestern state as fertile soil for his political message, especially his support for wind energy. Wind turbines dot the Iowa horizon and employ thousands of voters. Romney often mocks Obama's support for so-called green energy projects, a position that puts him at odds with Republican leaders in the state.
Obama is launching a two-day, four-city swing through Colorado on Wednesday. Obama's events are expected to focus on the economy, including his call for Congress to extend tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year while letting the cuts for higher-income earners expire.
Obama also planned to emphasize women's health issues during his first event in Denver. The crowd at the Auraria Event Center was expected to be predominantly women. The president was to be introduced by Fluke, the Georgetown University student who gained notoriety after conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called her a slut because of her support for a portion in the president's health care overhaul that requires insurance companies to cover contraception.
The president has been running television advertisements in Colorado highlighting his health care overhaul's benefits for women and warning women that those benefits could be taken away if Romney wins. On Wednesday the campaign released a video in which actress Elizabeth Banks describes her personal experience with Planned Parenthood and criticizes Romney for promising to cut off its federal funding.
Both Obama and Romney see women — particularly suburban women from their 30s to their 50s — as crucial to their victory in Colorado, where polls show the candidates in a tight contest for the state's nine electoral votes.
Obama has had the edge over female voters nationally and is focusing on a particularly promising subset: college-educated women. Fifty-five percent of college-educated women preferred Obama in a June Associated Press-GfK poll, while 40 percent preferred Romney.
Obama has been a frequent visitor to Colorado this summer, but not for purely political purposes. He made a quick trip to Colorado Springs in late June to view wildfire damage and meet with first responders battling the most devastating fires in states history. Two weeks later, he was back in Colorado to meet with the grief-stricken families and survivors of the horrific movie theater shooting in Aurora.
Both trips gave Obama an opportunity to assume the role of consoler in chief and show swing-state voters leadership in a crisis.
This week, Obama's focus will be solely on rounding up votes in the tightly contested Western battleground.
Both Colorado and Iowa, with huge swaths of independent-minded voters, hold significant political weight in November. In a tight election, their electoral votes could make the difference between a win or a loss. Obama won both in 2008.
Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Chicago and Kasie Hunt in Washington contributed to this report.