WASHINGTON (AP) - In campaign mode for months, President Barack Obama is making his quest for a second term official with rallies in Ohio and Virginia while casting Republican rival Mitt Romney as a flip-flopping protector of the rich.
The events Saturday at two universities, Ohio State and Virginia Commonwealth, were billed as the official kickoff of Obama's re-election bid, even though he's been solidly engaged in his campaign and filed the necessary paperwork to seek re-election over a year ago.
During the stops, the president will work to convince voters that his policies have put the nation's economy on more solid footing despite fresh evidence that the job market remains weak. He also is expected to try to define Romney as a candidate peddling old policies for both the economy and national security that are proven failures.
Obama has already headlined dozens of high-dollar fundraisers around the country as his campaign seeks to build a solid money advantage over Romney. And in his official White House travels, often to battleground states, the president has been pitching policy positions that fit neatly into the campaign's central theme of economic fairness, from a millionaires' tax to freezing student loan interest rates.
But official campaign rallies are likely to free Obama up to take more direct aim at his GOP challenger. Until now, Obama has used Romney's name sparingly, often choosing instead to cloak his criticisms of Romney in attacks against generic Republicans.
Some Democrats see Saturday's rallies as an opportunity for Obama to put Republicans on notice that he plans to be an aggressor in his fight for re-election.
"What we've seen too many times in the past is Democrats are way too meek in defining their opponents or defining themselves in an election," said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. "This president is not going to let the Republicans define him."
Campaign officials tamped down expectations that the new campaign speech Obama was unveiling Saturday would differ greatly from what he's already been saying in fundraisers or what his surrogates have been saying on the campaign trail.
David Axelrod, an Obama senior adviser, said the president wasn't a candidate who "reinvents himself week to week" - a shot at Romney's sometimes shifting positions. Instead, he and other advisers said the president would reinforce his campaign's broader themes of Obama as an advocate for the middle class and Romney as the candidate for the wealthiest Americans.
Republicans argue the Obama campaign is not aiming for consistency, but rather struggling to find a comprehensive vision for a second term.
"They have nothing positive to run," said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee. "No successful incumbent, no impressive record and no thriving economy."
Job numbers out Friday highlighted the challenge Obama faces in convincing voters he is the right steward for the nation's economy. Job growth slumped for a second straight month. The unemployment rate ticked down to 8.1 percent but largely because more people stopped looking for work and therefore were no longer deemed unemployed.
In the face of continued economic unease, Obama will aim in Saturday's rallies to recapture some of the youthful, hopeful energy of his 2008 campaign. Both rallies are being held on college campuses: Ohio State in Columbus and VCU in Richmond.
The campus setting is likely to create the atmosphere where Obama is at his best as a speaker: feeding off the energy of an enthusiastic crowd. It will also allow Obama to appeal to young voters, a crucial voting bloc in his 2008 victory that the Obama team is intensely targeting again this year.
The president will be joined at both rallies by Michelle Obama. The popular first lady has become a regular on the campaign fundraising circuit this year.
By formally opening his campaign in Ohio and Virginia, Obama is underscoring the critical role both states will play in his efforts to keep his job.
In 2008, Obama won perennial battleground Ohio while reversing decades of Republican dominance in Virginia.
Since then, Virginia has swiftly swung back toward the GOP in statewide elections. Both Obama and Romney advisers acknowledge that the state is up for grabs six months before Election Day.
During a campaign event in Portsmouth, Va. Thursday, Romney said, "This may well be the state that decides who the next president is."