By DAVID ESPO and STEVE PEOPLES
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio
President Barack Obama conceded Wednesday he did poorly in a debate last week that fueled a comeback by his rival in the race for the White House. Mitt Romney barnstormed battleground Ohio and pledged “I’m not going to raise taxes on anyone” in a new commercial.
A perennial campaign issue flared unexpectedly as Romney reaffirmed he is running as a “pro-life candidate and I’ll be a pro-life president.” He spoke one day after saying in an interview he was not aware of any abortion-related legislation that would become part of his agenda if he wins the White House.
Romney and Obama maneuvered in a race with 27 days to run as Vice President Joe Biden and Republican running mate Paul Ryan looked ahead to their only debate, set for Thursday night in Danville, Ky.
Whatever the impact of the Biden-Ryan encounter, last week’s presidential debate boosted Romney in the polls nationally and in Ohio and other battleground states, to the point that Obama was still struggling to explain a performance even his aides and supporters say was subpar.
Asked if it was possible he had handed the election to Romney, the president replied: “No.”
Despite the presidential display of confidence, public opinion polls suggested the impact of last week’s debate was to wipe out most, if not all, of the gains Obama made following both parties’ national conventions and the emergence in late summer of a videotape in which Romney spoke dismissively of 47 percent of Americans whom he said pay no income taxes. They feel as if they are victims, he said, adding they don’t take personal responsibilities for their lives.
Eager to capitalize on his newfound momentum, Romney told a factory audience in Ohio during the day: “My whole passion is about helping the American people who are struggling right now … The president says he’s for the middle class. How have they done under his presidency? Not so well.”
The Republican challenger’s new television commercial was an appeal to voters’ pocketbooks _ and also a rebuttal to Obama’s claim that Romney had a plan to cut taxes by $5 trillion on the wealthy that would mean higher taxes for the middle class.
Unemployment and the economy have been the dominant issues in the race for the presidency, and while Romney gained from the debate, last week’s drop in the jobless rate to 7.8 percent gave Obama a new talking point for the Democratic claim that his policies are helping the country recover, however slowly, from the worst recession in decades.
Romney also sought to lay any abortion-related controversy to rest as he campaigned across Ohio, a battleground with 18 electoral votes and one of the places where he has gained ground since last week’s debate.
But by the time he spoke, Obama’s aides had already jumped on comments from an interview with The Des Moines Register in which Romney said “there’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”
Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, told reporters on a conference call that Romney was “cynically and dishonestly” hiding his positions on women’s issues. “We’re not saying he’s changed his mind on these issues. We’re saying he’s trying to cover up his beliefs,” she said.
For entirely different reasons, one prominent anti-abortion group agreed that he shouldn’t.
As if to remind Romney of his previous statements on the issue, the head of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List distributed an article he wrote last summer vowing to prohibit federal funding for Planned Parenthood and to support legislation that would “protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion.”
Vice presidential encounters rarely make a significant difference in a White House campaign, although aides engage in the same sort of attempt to shape public expectations as when the men at the top of the ticket are ready to face off.
For Ryan’s camp, that meant whispering that the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Committee chairman was comfortable discussing spending issues and domestic policy, but might not be able to hold his own on foreign policy, a Biden strong suit.
The vice president’s side let it be known that Ryan is smart and wonky, a man who knows the budget better than anyone _ but it’s a version that omits mention of Biden’s nearly four decades of experience in government and his role as Obama’s point man in budget negotiations with Republicans on an elusive deficit-reduction deal.
Romney’s wife, Ann, took a turn as guest host on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and spoke candidly about experiencing depression after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 14 years ago. She said horses helped her recover her mental health.
Mrs. Romney is part-owner of a horse that competed this summer in the Olympic sport of dressage, the equine equivalent of ballet.
Espo reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler, Julie Pace, Philip Elliott and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.