COLUMBUS - US President Barack Obama used his first political rally of the 2012 campaign on Saturday to attack Republican Mitt Romney for learning the "wrong lessons" as a CEO and promised to move the US economy forward if he wins a second term.
Obama, a Democrat, formally launched his Chicago-based re-election effort last year, but his official political events have been confined to fundraisers since then.
That changed this weekend, and the president - who has criticized the former Massachusetts governor since he became the Republican party's presumptive nominee - showed at the first stop in Ohio he was ready for a fight.
With his wife at his side and Air Force One as a campaign plane, Obama said Romney was a patriotic American who had a lot to be proud of, but knocked the former governor for an economic plan that would favor the wealthy.
"He has run a large financial firm and he has run a state, but I think he has drawn the wrong lessons from those experiences," Obama, dressed in a button-down shirt without a tie or a jacket, told the crowd.
"He sincerely believes that if CEOs and wealthy investors like him make money the rest of us will automatically prosper as well," he said.
Obama said Romney and his fellow Republicans would take the country back to the policies that led to the recession.
"We were there, we remember, and we are not going back - we are moving this country forward," Obama said.
"Forward" is the Obama campaign's latest slogan, and people in the crowd held signs with that word above their heads.
Romney cites his experience as a business executive as a strength and accuses Obama of not doing enough to bring the US economy out of its slump.
The president, who was propelled to power in 2008 partly by huge rallies across the country, hoped to regain that momentum with events in large arenas in Columbus, Ohio and later in Richmond, Virginia. Both could be pivotal states in the November 6 election.
The Ohio arena, which had a capacity of 18,300 people, was not full. A large chunk of an upper balcony had complete sections without a single person. A campaign official said 14,000 people attended and noted Romney's largest event in Ohio had drawn merely 500 people.
A video of highlights of Obama's political life was shown to rev up the crowd. It included a clip of 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, followed by a shot of Obama brushing something off of his shoulder. The crowd roared.
Battling over swing states
Republicans accuse Obama of having infused politics into his official White House events over the past year, and scoff at the notion that his campaigning is just starting.
The Republican National Committee released a statement on Saturday morning in the mocking form of fake prepared remarks for the president's rally in Columbus.
"Ohio, thanks for the tepid welcome. I know I'm not as popular here as I once was, so I'll take what I can get," the RNC said in the imagined speech.
"It turns out the hope and change I promised didn't work out. So, we've launched a new strategy: hype and blame," the RNC's email read.
The president has taken official trips in recent months to highlight his energy record and to tout proposals to reduce costs for students, a key issue for young voters who tend to support him strongly.
Obama also has an advantage with women, and the presence of his wife Michelle on Saturday was meant to exploit that.
Wearing a turquoise dress, the first lady talked about Obama's late grandmother not breaking the "glass ceiling" as a banking executive and encouraged the crowd to volunteer for her husband's re-election as the November vote approaches.
The Obama campaign has mapped out several scenarios to win the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the presidency, and the choice of states for his first rallies was not coincidental.
Ohio, with its large cache of 18 electoral votes, is a particularly coveted prize. No Republican has made it to the White House in the last century without winning the state. Obama bested Republican rival John McCain there in 2008.
Ohio has struggled with a loss of manufacturing jobs, but its unemployment rate, at 7.5 percent in March, is below the national average, which was 8.2 percent in March and dipped to 8.1 percent in April.
That could help blunt Romney's attacks on Obama's economic record. The president's campaign also hopes to capitalize on union anger over an attempt by the state's Republican governor, John Kasich, to limit collective bargaining rights for firefighters, police officers, and other state workers.
Virginia had an even lower unemployment rate in March, at 5.6 percent. The Obama campaign will also try to seize on an advantage with women voters in the state, where the governor - Republican Bob McDonnell - promoted legislation that would have required women to have a sonogram before getting an abortion.
Polls show Obama is leading Romney in both Ohio and Virginia. An average of polls by RealClearPolitics showed the president ahead in Ohio by 4.2 percentage points and ahead in Virginia by 3.2 percentage points.