Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
President Barack Obama speaks to an estimated 14,000 people at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With his wife at his side and Air Force One as a campaign plane, President Barack Obama was holding his first political rallies of the 2012 presidential race on Saturday -- targeting two swing states, Ohio and Virginia, that could be critical to his bid to retain the White House.
The events at two universities, Ohio State and Virginia Commonwealth, were billed as the official kickoff of Obama's re-election bid, even though he's been solidly engaged in his campaign and over a year ago filed the necessary paperwork to run again.
Since Mitt Romney became the Republican Party's presumptive nominee, Obama has criticized his opponent in formal and informal situations -- a sign that he is more than ready to start the attacks that are expected to characterize a potentially ugly and negative campaign.
At Ohio State, Romney was on Obama's radar, NBC's Ali Weinberg reported from the rally.
"Governor Romney is a patriotic American who has a wonderful family, who has much to be proud of. Ran a financial firm and a state. But I think he has drawn the wrong lessons from his experiences,” Obama said to the 14,000 at Ohio State University’s Sottenheim Center.
Republicans accuse Obama of infusing politics into his official White House events and scoff at the notion that his campaigning is just starting.
The Republican National Committee released a statement Saturday in the mocking form of fake prepared remarks for the president's rally in Columbus, Ohio.
"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 dubbed "as prepared for reality."
In this week's address, President Obama speaks about his recent trip to Afghanistan, where he met with U.S. troops and signed an agreement that will help put an end to the war.
Obama released an email of his own to encourage supporters to watch his first rally and donate money.
"The crowd's starting to form in Columbus, and they're ready to go," he said in the email. "In a little while, I'll go on stage for the first rally of 2012."
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 inaugural rallies was not coincidental.
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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. The law was later repealed.
Polls show Obama is leading Romney in 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.
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Virginia had an even lower unemployment rate in March, coming in at 5.6 percent. The Obama campaign will also try to capitalize on an advantage with women voters in the state, where the governor -- Republican Bob McDonnell -- promoted legislation that would have required women to undergo an invasive trans-vaginal sonogram before getting an abortion.
In the face of continued economic unease, Obama's rallies Saturday's were intended to recapture some of the youthful, hopeful energy of his 2008 campaign.
The campus settings were likely to create the atmosphere where Obama is at his best, feeding off the energy of an enthusiastic crowd. Young voters were a crucial voting bloc in 2008 victory.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.