CHILLICOTHE, Ohio - Mitt Romney lashed out at President Barack Obama with some of the harshest rhetoric of his campaign at a Tuesday night rally here, accusing Obama of leveling "wild and reckless accusations that disgrace the office of the presidency."
The already divisive presidential contest took on an even uglier tone after Romney seized on the latest campaign-trail skirmish - a comment at a Virginia rally by Vice President Biden that Romney's plans to loosen Wall Street regulations would "put y'all back in chains" - to go after his opponents.
"This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like. President Obama knows better, promised better and America deserves better," Romney told a roaring crowd of about 5,000 supporters in Chillicothe. "His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then try to cobble together 51 percent of the pieces. If an American president wins that way, we all lose."
Romney added, "Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America."
Throughout the summer, Romney has taken umbrage at the tone of the Democratic advertising barrage, but this week he ratcheted up his criticism. He and his advisers wrote much of the speech Tuesday on his campaign bus riding between stops in Ohio.
His campaign is also airing negative television advertisements. The latest, released Tuesday, accuses Obama of diverting $716 billion from Medicare to pay for his health-care overhaul.
"Governor 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," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement.
Romney and his advisers have been using increasingly hot language to charge that the president has abandoned his 2008 themes of hope and change. But they became particularly incensed by an ad from Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC, that suggests Romney is to blame for the death of a woman whose husband lost his job after Bain Capital, a firm Romney co-founded, took over the steel mill where he worked.
Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), an intellectual leader of the conservative movement, as his running mate was expected to crystallize the policy differences between the Democratic and Republican tickets and elevate the conversation to a substantive debate about the federal debt and entitlement programs.
But the high-minded campaign has not come to be. Four days in, Romney's campaign accused Biden of alluding to slavery, Obama joked about the time Romney drove his station wagon with the family dog on the roof, and Romney called the president "intellectually exhausted."
And the candidates have yet to enter the post-Labor Day sprint, when things normally get tough.
Since Ryan's selection, Democrats have celebrated the chance to use his controversial budget plan to alter the Medicare program to hammer the newly minted Republican ticket.
The Romney campaign launched a preemptive strike on Tuesday to embrace Ryan's idea and say that it is Obama who is "actually damaging Medicare for current seniors."
In a new television ad and in remarks delivered across the critical battleground state of Ohio, Romney accused Obama of raiding $716 billion from Medicare to pay for his health-care overhaul.
"He is taking your money to finance his risky and unproven takeover of the health-care system," Romney said in Chillicothe. "He is putting Medicare at greater risk. He is putting health care at greater risk. He is putting your jobs at greater risk. We will not let Obamacare happen."
Romney's advisers foreshadowed more efforts in the days ahead to define the Medicare debate on their terms. The Romney campaign is trying to show voters that it will not shrink from Obama, even on politically treacherous terrain - including Medicare.
"Stay tuned. There's a lot more to be had here," Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser, said in an interview. "We feel like this is a great debate, that the president is incredibly vulnerable here. . . . We have a plan to save it for future generations, which they don't have."
However, the move carries significant risk, particularly in Florida and here in Ohio, critical swing states that have many seniors - although it may be the only way to cushion Romney from the potential political fallout of Ryan's budget proposal.
"You have to reform it for the younger generation in order to make the commitment stick for the current generation," Ryan said on Fox News Channel. "President Obama is actually damaging Medicare for current seniors. It's irrefutable. And that's why I think this is a debate we want to have, and that's a debate we're going to win."
The Obama campaign accused Romney of hypocrisy, noting that the Republican supports Ryan's budget, which includes Obama's $716 billion in baseline Medicare cuts.
The Obama campaign issued a memo Tuesday about the dim view many Floridians hold of Romney's and Ryan's statements on Medicare. Citing numerous recent polls and newspaper articles in Florida, the memo made the case that Romney's selection of Ryan as his running mate will be a "game changer" in Florida.
"They're spending millions of dollars on a lie to try to distract from the Ryan budget because they know it's absolutely devastating for them with voters of all ages," said Stephanie Cutter, a top Obama aide. "Unfortunately, the fact that both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to turn Medicare into a voucher and raise costs for seniors by up to $6,000 blunts everything else in this conversation."
The Medicare push came on a day on when Obama and Romney also traded blows over energy policy. The president promoting new homegrown sources such as wind to replace imported oil, and his GOP challenger journeying to coal country to accuse Obama of destroying the coal industry.
Romney has long assailed Obama for imposing regulations that he says have stymied business for producers of more traditional energy sources while favoring elusive alternative energies.
Yet on day two of his three-day campaign across an Iowa landscape where wind turbines are nearly as common as cornfields, Obama pounded Romney and pushed Congress to extend tax credits for the wind-energy industry - an effort Republicans oppose.
In Iowa alone, the industry employs more than 7,000 people, according to the Obama campaign; nationwide, that figure is 75,000. Obama has said that 37,000 jobs nationally would be at risk if the wind-tax credit is not extended.
Romney, the president said, has called new energy sources "imaginary" and Ryan has called them a "fad."
"During a speech a few months ago, Governor Romney even explained his energy policy this way: 'You can't drive a car with a windmill on it,' " Obama said. "I wonder if he actually tried that. That's something I would have liked to see."
Then, Obama added: "I don't know if he's actually tried that. I know he's had other things on his car." It was a rare reference by Obama to Romney having once placed his dog Seamus in a crate mounted to the roof of his station wagon during a family vacation.
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Gardner reported from Iowa. Rosalind S. Helderman in Washington and Felicia Sonmez in Colorado contributed to this report.