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Obama returns to Jax with refrain that middle class is 'at risk like never before'

Four years after running against the teetering economy, President Barack Obama returned to Jacksonville Thursday, the same place he used to draw a stark contrast to John McCain in 2008 who memorably told a Jacksonville audience after the fall of Lehman Brothers that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.”

This time, Obama deflected criticism of a national economy still staggering under his watch and told a much smaller crowd that Wall Street’s “culture of anything goes” prompting the nation's record debt are the factors that continue to threaten the future of the middle class. 

“We are here today because we recognize that this basic bargain, this essence of who we are …is at risk like never before,’’ he said. “What’s standing in our way is not technical solutions…what’s standing in our way is our politics.’’ 

In his 27-minute speech, delayed by an hour because of bad weather, he appealed to the cheering crowd to work for him, saying the opposition "will spend more money than we’ve ever seen in our lifetime on ads that same the same thing:...the economy is not where it should be and it’s all Obama’s fault."

He called the tactic a "plan to win an election but they can’t hide the fact that's not a plan to create jobs. That’s not a plan to revive the economy."

He revived his familiar criticism of Romney’s plan for a “25 percent tax cut for every millionaire in the country” by gutting job training, and college aid, rolling back health care reform and “forcing more than 2,000 Floridians to pay more for their prescription drugs.” 

In 2008, a packed and enthusiastic crowd of 9,000 greeted Obama at Veteran’s Arena. This year, the number of supporters at Prime Osborn Convention Center was estimated at 3,000 on the first of a two-day swing through the nation’s largest battleground state.

Obama next heads to Century Village in West Palm Beach, the Democratic retirement haven, where he will continue his appeal to Florida seniors.

Obama warned that under Romney, his plan to support the Ryan budget will “end Medicare as we know it.’’ He said his health care reforms have helped seniors receive discounted prescription drugs and get access to free preventive care.

Republicans countered with their own claim that Obama’s policies “will end Medicare as we know it” and noted a Congressional Budget Office report that said payments under Obama’s Affordable Care Act will reduce benefits in the Medicare Advantage program by $507 billion and shrink enrollment by 50 percent.

Obama defended his support restoring the Bush tax cuts with an exemption for anyone making more than $250,000 a year saying he just wants to "go back to the rates they were paying under Bill Clinton, which by the way worked pretty well."

The president's strategy in Florida is defensive in part, as both sides acknowledge that while Obama could craft a victory by losing the Florida’s 29 electoral votes, the map makes a Romney victory virtually impossible without Florida.

For months, polls have shown the two candidates in a virtual dead heat. A Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 poll last week found that even the GOP’s favorite son, Marco Rubio, doesn’t bring enough votes to give Romney a pull-ahead margin if he were chosen as the vice presidential pick.

Meanwhile, Obama’s ground game in Florida has followed the successful template of 2012. He is steadily building a voter mobilization army with dozens of offices, hired staff and hundreds of  volunteers schooled in voter registration.

The campaign has also been spending heavily on television statewide, estimated at $17 million.

Obama lost to McCain in Duval County in 2008 by less than 2 percentage points, by 10 percentage points in Lee County won Palm Beach County by a margin of 61 to 38 percent.

Republicans greeted Obama Thursday with a new attack ad, paid for by the GOP-supporting super PAC American Crossroads. The ad, entitled “Smoke,” opens with a stream of critical negative ads and then announces the president is "racking up $4 billion in new debt every day, the unemployment rate is stuck above 8 percent, and family incomes are falling. President Obama can’t run on that record."

The $9.3 million ad buy includes $2. 8 million of spending in Florida and will also run in eight other states, the super-PAC said.

American Crossroads was founded by former George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove. It also airs in:  Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia.

Florida's economy continues to remain stagnate as the unemployment rate drops but the number of people out of work remains steady. A report out this week by Florida Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research found that while Florida's unemployment rate has dropped from 9.9 percent in December to 8.6 percent in May, nearly 70 percent of the drop was due to people dropping out of the labor force.

"If the [labor] participation rate had held steady since 12/11 the unemployment rate would have been 9.5 percent," the report found. 

It’s statistic Romney campaign spokesman Jeff Bechdel also highlights, arguing it is a reflection on the inability of the president to ignite the economy. But, as proof of the tight rope Republicans must walk on the issue, Gov. Rick Scott’s spokesmen vigorously dispute the labor participation rate numbers as relevant.

On Friday, Obama will visit the all-important I-4 corridor with a stop in Winter Park and then return to the same stadium in Fort Myers where he announced his Recovery Act initiative and gave former Gov. Charlies Crist the infamous hug. 

Fort Myers has seen unemployment rates drop in the last six months, in line with the state decline, but there are 15,000 fewer people working in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers labor force than there were in December, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Jacksonville has seen its unemployment rate drop from 9.2 percent in December to 8 percent in May, lower than the statewide average of 8.6 percent. But the number of workers in the labor force is 20,000 fewer than there were in December according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.