By KEN THOMAS and DAVID ESPO
President Barack Obama made his rival's personal millions a front-and-center issue in the race for the White House on Wednesday, telling a swing-state audience that Mitt Romney "is asking you to pay more so that people like him can get a big tax cut."
"In order to afford just one $250,000 tax cut for somebody like Mr. Romney, 125 families like yours would have to pay another $2,000 in taxes each and every year," Obama added, citing a report that his opponent's aides immediately denounced as deeply flawed.
The president leveled his charge as Romney, back from an overseas trip, looked ahead to an intensive campaign stretch that will culminate in his selection of a vice presidential running mate as early as next week and the Republican National Convention at month's end.
There were hints that Republicans might soon seek to expand the political playing field into Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, states that traditionally vote Democratic in a presidential race. Campaign activity has been relatively modest in all three since the end of the GOP primaries.
Officials familiar with campaign advertising said Restore our Future, a super Pac aligned with the former Massachusetts governor, is airing television ads in all three states that retrace Romney's successful stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. "After Sept.11, Romney delivered the Olympics safe and sound," the announcer says, referring to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of more than a decade ago.
The ad makes no mention of Obama, and appears designed to give viewers a positive, initial impression of a candidate they may not know much about _ the type of commercial that often serves as an introduction to a longer campaign effort.
Obama's trip to Ohio was the ninth in his drive for re-election, signifying the importance of a state he carried in 2008 and where more money has been spent on ads than in any other this year. No Republican has ever captured the White House without carrying Ohio.
Obama campaigned in Mansfield and then Akron, and his campaign backed his rhetoric with a new ad that described Romney's economic plan this way: "a new $250,000 tax cut for millionaires. Increase military spending. Adding trillions to the Deficit."
Ryan Williams, a spokesman for Romney, called it a "ridiculous ad coming from a president who shattered his pledge to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term."
The president told his first audience of the day that "the entire centerpiece of my opponent's economic plan is a new $5 trillion tax cut on top of the Bush tax cuts."
As the audience booed, Obama added that taxpayers making more than $3 million a year would receive a tax cut totaling "almost a quarter of a million dollars."
Citing a new report by a nonpartisan organization, he said the middle class would be hit with an average tax increase of more than $2000, in the form of a reduction in existing breaks for home mortgage deductions, health care premiums and the cost of a college education.
"He's not asking you to contribute more to pay down the deficit," Obama said of Romney. "He's asking you to pay more so that people like him can get a big tax cut."
Romney's wealth has been estimated to be in the range of $250 million, although he has not provided a detailed accounting of his holdings.
Within earshot of Obama's remarks there was evidence of an electorate in flux.
"You don't know who to trust. It makes me not want to vote anymore," said Nita Maytern, 39, of Mansfield, who could hear Obama's voice from her spot outside the park where he spoke. She said she is a registered Republican but may not vote this fall because she hasn't been following the campaign.
The president's attack went to a core dispute in the campaign, and one that spilled over into the Capitol during the day. There, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to extend all of the tax cuts due to expire on Dec. 31. Nineteen Democrats sided with the GOP on the 256-171 roll call.
The president and most Democrats in Congress want to extend existing tax cuts for all who earn less than $250,000 a year, while letting them expire on Dec. 31 for everyone else.
Congressional Republicans want a blanket extension, arguing that any tax increase would inhibit efforts to create jobs and strengthen the economic recovery, and in particular create a burden on small business owners who file with the Internal Revenue Service as individuals.
In addition, Romney has proposed an additional 20 percent cut in tax rates, and simultaneously promised to rein in future deficits. He has not laid out a detailed package of spending cuts to achieve his objectives.
Obama relied on a report by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center for his claim that middle-class taxes would rise by an average of $2,000 "if Gov. Romney wants to keep his word."
Romney's aides immediately circulated a detailed rebuttal that said the Tax Policy Center had ignored parts of the former governor's plan in its estimate, and in particular had omitted "growth effects" of a proposed cut in the corporate income tax rate.
In an attack on the organization's impartiality, Romney aides noted that one of the report's three authors is a former economic staffer to Obama.
Obama's aides countered quickly, saying the head of the Tax Policy Center is a former senior member of George W. Bush's economic team and that another report author worked for President George H.W. Bush's administration.
They also said Romney's campaign relied on the same organization's work in launching attacks on three rivals during this year's struggle for the Republican presidential nomination.
For his part, Romney made no public appearances Wednesday. After a weeklong trip to Britain, Israel and Poland to highly mixed reviews, he returns to active campaigning on Thursday. His immediate destination is Colorado, including a fundraiser in Aspen that several Republican governors are expected to attend.
He also plans a bus trip through Virginia, North Carolina and Florida in the coming days, placing additional emphasis on the same group of swing states that has received much of Obama's attention. He is expected to name a vice presidential running mate before the Republican National Convention, which opens on Aug. 27.
While Romney was in Boston, his campaign greeted Obama in Ohio with a television ad that attacked the auto industry bailout Obama continued for pushing some car dealers out of business and costing workers their jobs.
"I received a letter from General Motors. They were suspending my credit line. We had thirty-some employees that were out of work," former dealership owner says Al Zarzour says in the ad.
Ohio leads the nation in employment in the auto parts industry, and polls generally show the bailout _ which Romney opposed _ contributes to Obama's support in the state. It was not clear how often the commercial would run, but officials said it was airing only in the Cleveland area.
Espo reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Washington, Beth Fouhy in New York and Ann Sanner in Mansfield, Ohio, contributed to this report.