By JULIE PACE
WASHINGTON (AP) - Competing for white working-class voters, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney squared off Saturday on China and accused each other of backing policies that would move American jobs overseas as the U.S. economy struggles to recover.
"In 2008, candidate Obama promised to take China `to the mat'," Romney said in his weekly podcast. "But since then, he's let China run all over us."
Obama's team, in turn, argued that Romney has profited from and outsourced jobs to China. The president also rolled out a new 60-second, $6 million ad campaign that casts Romney as risky for the nation's recovery and features former President Bill Clinton saying: "They want to go back to the same old policies that got us in trouble in the first place."
Seven weeks before Election Day, both candidates took a rare break from campaigning even as they intensified their efforts on the economy, through the prism of China, with Obama sensing an opportunity to undercut his Republican rival's strength and Romney refusing to cede ground. The maneuvering came as a new poll showed Romney having lost his long-held advantage on the economy to the president even as the overall contest remains tight.
For Romney, emphasizing China was a way to refocus his campaign on voters' No. 1 issue and the central one of his campaign after a difficult week dominated by foreign policy, a weak spot for the Republican, in the wake of unrest at U.S. embassies in the Middle East. The shift to China also indicated Romney's need to shore up support among the working-class voters he needs to turn out in big numbers come November.
Obama's campaign said it welcomed the fight on China, an issue where it argues Romney has numerous vulnerabilities. It released a new web video Saturday in which Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said Romney holds investments in Chinese companies and outsourced jobs to China while running the private equity firm Bain Capital.
Obama's quick counter underscored the importance of holding onto his recent gains in Ohio, a swing state with a large manufacturing base where many blame China for depressing the state's industry.
The tit-for-tat on China started percolating late last week.
Romney released a television advertisement Thursday accusing Obama of "failing American workers" and ignoring unfair trade practices by China. Obama followed up a day later with a TV spot focused on its claims that Romney outsourced jobs to China while working in the private sector.
Those commercials are dominating the campaign conversation in key states where the race will be decided even as the national campaign conversation focuses on foreign policy in the aftermath of unrest at U.S. embassies that left an American ambassador and three others dead.
China _ and through it the economy _ has become Romney's core argument as he woos voters in battleground states; it's the only spot Romney's campaign was running over the weekend in the eight states likely to decide the election: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada and North Carolina. The campaign no longer is running the 15 state-specific ads it rolled out in a $4.5 million ad blitz the day after the Democratic convention, according to officials who track campaign advertising.
Both candidates left it to their advisers to haggle over China on Saturday.
Romney conferred with advisers at the Belmont, Mass., home of his son Tagg, then watched his grandson's soccer game. The president spent the day at the White House and had no public events.
But his campaign got a jump on the day with an early morning launch of the new ad that claims Romney's economic plan caters to multimillionaires over the middle class.
"We're not going back, we are moving forward," Obama says in the commercial that's set to air in the seven most competitive states; Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia.
Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams called the ad "false and misleading."
Obama's new ad is an expensive and expansive effort to gain an upper hand on the economy at a time when voters are reporting feeling slightly more optimistic that the president's policies are helping. A new national survey by The New York Times and CBS News finds that Romney has lost his long-standing edge on the question of who voters view as most likely to restore the economy and create jobs. Despite that, the poll found the race narrowly divided.
Polls in several of the most contested states also show the president with a slight edge.