CHILLICOTHE, Ohio—Mitt Romney offered his strongest criticism yet of President Barack Obama's campaign tactics, accusing his Democratic opponent of resorting to "diversions and distractions" and "defaming others" in order to win re-election this November.
Speaking on the steps of a courthouse here on the final stop of his four-state bus tour, Romney lashed out at Obama, describing him as "intellectually exhausted, out of ideas and out of energy." As a result, Romney said, Obama and his allies are running a campaign based on personal attacks rather than "fresh ideas."
While he didn't mention him by name, Romney made reference to a Vice President Joe Biden's attack on his fiscal policies in a Virginia speech Tuesday when he said Romney would "put you back in chains" if elected.
"His campaign and his surrogates have made wild and reckless accusations that disgrace the office of the presidency," Romney said. "Another outrageous charge just came a few hours ago in Virginia. And the White House sinks a little bit lower. This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like. President Obama knows better, promised better, and America deserves better."
Romney accused Obama of pushing Republicans and Democrats "as far apart as they can go" and he accused Obama of waging an even more divisive campaign by "dividing us all in groups."
"He demonizes some. He panders to others. His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then cobble together 51 percent of the pieces. If an American president wins that way, we all lose," Romney said. "So, Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago, and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America."
Asked for a response, Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt called Romney's claims hypocritical. "Gov. Romney's comments tonight seemed unhinged, and particularly strange coming at a time when he's pouring tens of millions of dollars into negative ads that are demonstrably false," LaBolt said.
Romney's speech sought to take direct aim at what has been one of Obama's strengths heading into the fall: his likability. Even as poll after poll has found voter dissatisfaction on the economy and on Obama's job performance, Obama has consistently trumped Romney when it comes to likability. A recent Gallup poll found 60 percent of those surveyed liked Obama, compared to just 30 percent for Romney.
But after a month in which negative attacks have taken a toll on Romney's poll numbers, Romney and his campaign have strongly pushed back—countering Obama's attacks with increasingly harsher attacks of their own.
While Romney used to couch his criticism of Obama's policies by telling voters that he believes Obama is a "nice guy," that line has been dropped and replaced with language bemoaning the absence of the "hope and change" candidate from 2008. The Romney pushback intensified after a pro-Obama super PAC released an ad last week essentially blaming Romney for the death of the wife of a steelworker laid off from a company owned by Romney's former firm, Bain Capital.
On Tuesday, Romney bemoaned Obama's political shift in stronger terms than he has ever before—casting himself as the uniter and Obama the divider.
"It wasn't supposed to be this way. His was supposed to be the campaign of hope and change," Romney told supporters here Tuesday. "This election is about restoring the promise of America. It's a choice between two visions for our nation's future. It's about the challenges America faces. It is about a better tomorrow and a better future. We don't need more excuses. We don't need more blame. We don't need more small-minded attacks. What we really need is a new president."
Voters, he said, "deserve an honest debate. And that's what Paul Ryan and I will give them."
Romney's speech here was perhaps his most elaborately staged speech yet. His campaign closed several streets in the city's historic downtown, hanging a massive American flag that was the width of a street to provide a backdrop for when Romney's campaign bus entered the event.
The GOP candidate spoke in front of the stately Corinthian columns of the county courthouse—where the campaign had hung three massive banners—including one that read "Victory in Ohio."
On stage, Romney largely stuck to the theme of his stump speech, diverting only to trash Obama's attacks. He urged supporters to turn out for the GOP ticket this fall.
"Paul Ryan and I believe in America—and in this election, we're offering Americans a clear and honest choice. Every single day we're going to do our part. And we need you to do yours," Romney said. "I ask you to commit like never before over the next 84 days. This election can come down to just one more vote. I ask you find that vote. ... One more vote can make the difference in Ohio. And Ohio will make the difference for America."