Diving into campaign mode full-bore, President Barack Obama will headline his first re-election rallies next week, marking an important turning point in the race for the White House.
The president will hit the campaign trail in back-to-back rallies May 5 in Ohio and Virginia, the Obama campaign said Wednesday. Obama carried both battleground states in the 2008 election and will likely need to win there again in November if he wants to hold on to his job.
Michelle Obama, the popular first lady, was to join the president at the rallies, which will be held on the campuses of Ohio State University in Columbus and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
With Mitt Romney now assured of the Republican Party's nomination, Obama couldn't afford to stand off to the sidelines much longer in what is shaping up to be a close contest.
Even the White House, which has been loath to engage fully in the election as it seeks to project a focus on the day-to-day business of governing, acknowledged Wednesday that the general election was in full-swing. White House spokesman Jay Carney, referring to the GOP contest, declared that "the race is over on that side.
For Obama, the campaign rallies could serve as a way to energize his base, especially the young voters on the campuses where the events will be held. But they also break down the barrier the White House has tried to maintain between the president and the political bickering on the campaign trail.
That barrier has been thin at best. Obama has for months been wooing donors at campaign fundraisers across the country, building up a sizeable money advantage over Romney. And Obama's official events have often had a campaign vibe, with Air Force One landing in swing state after swing state and crowds breaking into chants of "four more years."
Campaign officials made clear that Obama planned to try to poke holes in what Romney sees as his greatest strength, his record as a job-creator as both a private sector business leader and governor of Massachusetts. But David Axelrod, the campaign's senior adviser, said the president's message would not differ greatly on the campaign trail from what he has been saying at official events, as he seeks to draw a contrast between his vision for the nation's economic future and that of the Republican Party.
"We're not the candidate who reinvents himself week to week," Axelrod, dinging Romney for what the Obama team says is a tendency to flip-flop between the most politically expedient position.
Yet on the campaign trail, Obama is likely to feel more unencumbered in his attacks on Romney. At the White House and in other official events, Obama has often sought to draw a contrast with his Republican opponent without uttering his name.
Romney has maintained a laser-like focus on Obama for several weeks. On Tuesday, he outlined more of his general-election pitch to voters, urging all who struggle in a shaky U.S. economy to "hold on a little longer, a better America begins tonight."
News of Obama's first campaign rallies followed word from the Republican National Committee that it had filed a formal complaint with the Government Accountability Office requesting an investigation into whether Obama was using taxpayer money to fund travel that benefitted his re-election campaign.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement that Obama's campaign "has been cheating the American taxpayer by using taxpayer dollars to fund their general election efforts."
For the president, much of the difference between "official" events and "campaign" events boils down to who pays for the cost of holding the event and which staffers are in charge of overseeing them.
But those technical differences often make little difference to those in the crowd _ or to Obama himself. The president looked every bit the campaigner this week during official events on college campuses in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa, all politically important states.
While the events were officially pegged to Obama's call for Congress to freeze the interest rates on federal student loans, the policy pitch was but a platform for a larger campaign goal: courting student voters, whose enthusiasm he will need in the November election.
Before his speech, and in front of TV cameras and photographers, Obama sat down with five Iowa students to hear about their career dreams and debt burdens.
While young voters were solidly behind Obama in the 2008 election, they are being aggressively wooed by Romney. His campaign is hoping he can appeal to young voters burdened by a bleak employment picture and student loan debt.
Obama's full entry into the campaign comes about six weeks later than when his predecessor headlined his first re-election rallies. But by the time George W. Bush headlined his first rally in Florida on March 20, 2004, his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was already his party's nominee.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Ryan Foley in Iowa City, Iowa, and Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.