PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan went back to school on Saturday to rally college students in all corners of all-important Ohio and hammer at President Barack Obama for going easy on China over unfair trade practices. Obama took precious time off the campaign trail to practice for the next debate against his GOP rival.
It was an unspoken acknowledgment of the importance that Obama attaches to upping his game in Debate No.2 that the president is largely dropping out of sight for five straight days in the final weeks of the race to prepare for Tuesday's encounter in Hempstead, N .Y.
Even while cloistered for debate prep at a sprawling resort in Williamsburg, Va., though, the president didn't completely cede the spotlight to Romney. His weekly radio and Internet address highlighted the Obama administration's work to revive the U.S. auto industry — a message aimed squarely at working-class voters in manufacturing-heavy states like Ohio.
Romney, for his part, told a crowd of more than 3,000 people at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth that Obama was ducking an important decision on whether China is manipulating its currency to gain a trade advantage. A decision was due on Monday, but the Treasury Department said Friday the decision won't come until after global finance officials meet in early November. That means a decision is unlikely before the Nov. 6 election.
"It's time for us to stand up to China for their cheating," Romney declared. "It's got to stop."
Romney framed the issue squarely as a matter of jobs, saying cheap Chinese products were driving American companies out of business.
"We've got to get those jobs back and make trade to be fair," Romney declared.
Ryan, too, criticized the administration for failing to hold China accountable for its trade practices. During a morning appearance in northeastern Ohio at Youngstown State University, he told a crowd of about 1,400 that his hometown of Janesville, Wis., was much like theirs — a "blue-collar, factory town" where the struggles of the auto industry hit home hard.
Ryan said the president had led the country toward a higher national debt, steeper taxes and insufficient job growth.
"We can't keep going down this path," he said. "We can't keep accepting this is the new normal."
The Wisconsin congressman then hopscotched to Bowling Green State University, in the northwestern part of the state, where he grabbed a bratwurst with mustard at the college Republicans' tailgate party before the school's football team took on his alma mater, Miami (Ohio) University.
The Obama campaign dismissed the Republicans' tough talk on China as nothing more than talk.
"Mitt Romney will never crack down on China's cheating — just look at his record," Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner said in a statement. He said Romney had opposed Obama administration efforts to impose tariffs on Chinese-made tires and had invested in companies that shipped American jobs to China.
Obama's campaign upped its celebrity quotient as the two sides claw for any advantage in a tight race: Actor Morgan Freeman's commanding voice narrates a new ad telling voters that Obama has met the nation's challenges and "the last thing we should do is turn back now."
On Thursday, Bruce Springsteen will team up with former President Bill Clinton to rally Obama voters in Parma, Ohio, in what will be the singer's first political appearance this campaign. "The Boss" plans a second event Thursday, in Ames, Iowa. Springsteen campaigned for Obama in 2008, too.
Both sides are devoting huge time and effort to Ohio, this year's battleground to end all battlegrounds, where polls show Obama with a slight edge over Romney. Saturday's emphasis by the two sides on the auto industry and manufacturing jobs was designed to connect with blue-collar voters there.
Both sides also are keenly aware of the importance of this year's series of three presidential debates. Romney's strong performance in the first debate on Oct. 3 gave his campaign a much-needed jolt of energy, and the GOP nominee said his campaign still had post-debate momentum over Obama.
"His campaign is about smaller and smaller things, and our campaign is about bigger and bigger crowds, fighting for a bright future," Romney said on warm, sunny fall day.
Joe Biden's aggressive counterpunch in a debate with Ryan on Thursday cheered Democrats, but some critics thought the vice president overdid the theatrics with his frequent eye rolls, headshakes and broad grins suggesting incredulity.
Obama's campaign has acknowledged he didn't practice enough before his widely panned performance in the first debate. Some sessions were cut short, others canceled altogether, mainly because of developments in Libya, where four Americans were killed at a U.S. consulate.
The campaign has resisted calls from some Democrats to shake up Obama's debate team. Senior advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe, along with former White House officials Anita Dunn and Ron Klain, still are running the preparations.
The president may have picked up a few pointers from Biden's debate with Ryan. Obama watched the vice presidential debate from aboard Air Force One and would chime in when Biden made a strong point.
"That's a good one," Obama said, according to aides.
Tuesday's town hall-style debate at Hofstra University will have an audience of about 80 undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization. Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN will select from among questions on foreign and domestic policy submitted by the audience. The final debate, covering foreign policy, will be Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.
Romney spent nearly four hours Saturday morning at a Columbus hotel preparing for the next debate, then boarded his campaign bus for Shawnee State. From there, the Romney bus headed for Lebanon in southwest Ohio.
The Obama campaign isn't leaving Ohio unguarded for long: Michelle Obama will visit Delaware and Cleveland on Monday and the president will be in Athens on Wednesday.
To help keep Democratic ads like Freeman's new appeal for Obama up and running in the hotly contested battleground states, the president dispatched Biden to a pair of private fundraisers in Connecticut and New York on Saturday.