Washington - President Barack Obama summed up his case for another term on Thursday to voters already casting ballots in large numbers more than five weeks before Election Day, pledging to create many more jobs and "make the middle class secure again".
The Obama campaign has been encouraged by polling showing the president starting to take a lead in some of most important battleground states, many of which offer the increasingly popular choice of early voting, which started in Iowa on Thursday.
The race remains far from settled, however. The president and Republican challenger Mitt Romney face a crucial test next week with the first of three presidential debates. It is perhaps Romney's best remaining chance to change the trajectory of the campaign.
The two candidates campaigned in each other's shadow for a third straight day, hunting for votes in the competitive state of Virginia.
The US president is not chosen by national popular vote but in state-by-state contests. In the final stretch of the long campaign, both candidates are focusing their efforts on states whose voters are neither reliably Democratic nor Republican.
"It's time for a new economic patriotism, an economic patriotism rooted in the belief that growing our economy begins with a strong and thriving middle class," Obama said in Virginia Beach. It was a line straight from the two-minute television advert his campaign released overnight.
Economy dominant issue
Romney, focusing on threats beyond American shores, accused the commander in chief of backing dangerous cuts in defence spending.
With the economy still the dominant election issue, Romney and his allies also seized on news that the US economy grew at a much lower rate than previously estimated during the April-June quarter. The Republicans called it evidence that Obama's policies aren't working.
Early voting began on Thursday in Iowa, with long lines forming quickly in the capital of the highly contested Midwestern state. Although Virginia does not offer early voting, the southern state has already sent out absentee ballots for those who are not able to make it to the polls on Election Day.
Campaigning in Virginia, where the military is key, Romney accused Obama of supporting cuts in the defence budget that would be detrimental to the nation's military readiness.
"The world is not a safe place. It remains dangerous," he said, referring to North Korea, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. "The idea of cutting our military commitment by a trillion dollars over this decade is unthinkable and devastating."
Romney is struggling to reverse a slide in opinion polls and get past the fallout over a secretly recorded video showing him dismissing "47% of Americans" who don't pay taxes and get some form of government aid. Romney added that as a candidate his job is not to worry about them.
Turning '47%' comments around
Next week's presidential debate, focused on the economy and the role of government, offers Romney another chance to explain his comments.
Brett O'Donnell, a debate coach who worked with Romney during Republican primaries, said the nominee needs to confront his video-recorded setback head-on and turn it against Obama.
"He has to turn the 47% and make sure people understand the reasoning behind that argument, how that's the result of the president's policies," he said. Romney can emphasise the increasing number of people relying on food stamps, unemployment checks and other aid, suggests O'Donnell, who no longer works for the campaign.
Obama's campaign put out a second, scathing advert on Thursday based on Romney's recorded comments.
In the ad, Romney's by-now well-known remarks are heard as images scroll by of a white woman with two children in a rural setting, a black woman wearing workplace safety goggles, two older white men wearing Veterans of Foreign Wars hats; a Latino, and finally a white woman with safety goggles — each of them meant to portray millions whom Romney described dismissively.
Cutting oil imports
Romney countered with a new ad of his own, pointing to comments Obama made four years ago when he said he would support proposals to raise the cost of business for facilities than run on coal. "So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it's just that it will bankrupt them," the then-presidential candidate is seen saying.
The narrator adds, "Obama wages war on coal while we lose jobs to China, which is using more coal every day. Now your job is in danger."
In his speech, Obama said that if re-elected he would back policies to create a million new manufacturing jobs, help businesses double exports and give tax breaks to companies that "invest in America, not ship jobs overseas". He pledged to cut oil imports in half while doubling the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks."
Obama also said he would "ask the wealthy to pay a little more", a reference to the tax increase he favours on incomes over $200 000 for individuals and $250 000 for couples. It is perhaps his most fundamental disagreement on policy with Romney, who wants to extend expiring tax cuts at all levels, including the highest.