WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama sets off Friday on the final two months of a brutal and steep climb toward the Nov. 6 election, exhorting voters to reject what he called the cynical message of Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
With the contest for the White House about dead even, Obama and Romney were both campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa just hours after the president closed out the Democratic National Convention with a speech that revisited and defended the message of hope and change that swept him into the White House four years ago.
If voters were to turn away from that course now, he warned, "you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn't possible," and those dreams "will not happen."
Romney opened the two-month sprint to Election Day, blasting out 15 television ads in eight states in response.
For the candidates, the next 60 days promise a high-stakes mix of debates, multiple appearances in a dozen battleground states and hours of campaign speeches.
The U.S. president it not chosen by the popular vote but in state-by-state contests, hence the intense focus by both campaigns on battleground states that do not reliably vote Republican or Democratic. That reality is what is driving both men to campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire on Friday.
Obama knows he has a difficult job ahead to lock down the small percentage of voters who are undecided. He undoubtedly hoped they were watching Thursday night as he, in rising cadences, littered his acceptance with the message that Americans are his partner in returning the recession-scared United States to a path of economic fairness, robust growth and lower unemployment.
"America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won't promise that now," he said, as his audience rose to its feet, applauding wildly. "Yes, our path is harder— but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer— but we travel it together. We don't turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth."
Polls show only about half of America's decided voters support the president. Romney has the backing of the others, who believe his record as a successful businessman makes the Republican as the best candidate to solve the country's economic difficulties. Surveys show Obama holds a big lead on the question of which candidate voters most like and see as attuned to the needs of average Americans.
But overall, the candidates are neck-and-neck in what looks to be the closest presidential contest in recent memory. Polls show fewer than 10 per cent of voters are still undecided, which each candidate evenly spitting the support of those who have made up their minds.
As Obama closes out his first term, the recovery from the Great Recession remains modest at best and the country has endured the longest stretch of more-than 8 per cent unemployment since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Romney will continue hammering Obama on that record. The president argues he needs more time to fix an economy and financial system that nearly collapsed in the final months of former President George W. Bush's White House term. Romney declares Obama has squandered his first term and must be turned out of office.
Obama counters that the American people had joined him in huge legislative and policy triumphs and don't want to lose that progress in the overhaul of the health care system, changes in immigration policy and an end to the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
"We are not going back, we are moving forward, America," Obama said.
He built on the message Democrats delivered throughout their convention: America is on the road to recovery while Romney would revive failed policies, cutting taxes for the rich and slashing programs that give regular Americans a chance for a more prosperous future.
"If you reject the notion that this nation's promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election," he said.
Obama's speech marked the climax of the three-day convention. First Lady Michelle Obama highlighted the first day, talking about her husband's humble roots and compassion. Bill Clinton, the popular former president who led the United States during years of prosperity, gave a rousing speech Wednesday, vouching for Obama's economic policies and urging Americans not to turn back to Republicans.
Though the economy has dominated the convention, Democrats have also discussed national security issues, where Obama does well in polls. They highlighted his carrying out his promise to pull U.S. combat forces from Iraq and, especially, his order that led to the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Obama noted that both Romney and his vice-presidential running mate Paul Ryan have little foreign policy experience. "They want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly," he said.
He said Romney was "stuck in a Cold War time warp" for describing Russia — not al-Qaida — as America's No. 1 enemy. Recalling the stir Romney caused in London by questioning British preparations for the Olympics, Obama said: "You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can't visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally."
The Romney campaign was dismissive as Democrats completed their convention.
"Americans will hold President Obama accountable for his record — they know they're not better off and that it's time to change direction," Matt Rhoades, the challenger's campaign manager, said in a statement.
Associated Press writers David Espo, Julie Pace, Donna Cassata, Ben Feller, Ken Thomas, Matt Michaels, Jim Kuhnhenn, Calvin Woodward, Jennifer Agiesta, Jack Gillum, Josh Lederman, Kasie Hunt, Thomas Beaumont and Steve Peoples contributed to this report.