By Jeff Mason and Sam Youngman
VIRGINIA BEACH/SPRINGFIELD, Virginia (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney battled to capture the military vote in Virginia on Thursday as they tried to squeeze out an advantage in one of the most tightly contested swing states ahead of the November 6 election.
Speaking in the military town of Virginia Beach, Obama called for a new "economic patriotism" to help middle-income voters whose support his campaign is targeting.
Romney spoke at an American Legion hall a few miles from the Pentagon and blamed Obama for $1.2 trillion in potential defense cuts that could bring heavy job losses to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, where the Democrat is popular.
The Pentagon is home to the nation's military command.
Obama's economic patriotism focus was a new angle in his campaign stump speech and was likely aimed at the state's large population of veterans. The message linked to Obama's theme that he - and not Romney - is promoting tax policies and social programs that support the middle class.
"During campaign season you always hear a lot about patriotism. Well, you know what? It's time for a new economic patriotism. An economic patriotism rooted in the belief that growing our economy begins with a strong and thriving middle class," Obama told a crowd of some 7,000 in Virginia Beach.
Veterans also featured in a new Obama campaign ad released on Thursday that played Romney's voice from his "47 percent" video over images of working Americans, ex-military members and a young family in a poor, rural setting. No other voices appear in the ad.
Romney describes 47 percent of the electorate in the secretly recorded video as "victims" reliant on federal aid.
Polls show the clip has damaged voters' perception of Romney, though most people will still decide who to vote for based on economic issues. Nationally, Obama is ahead of Romney by 49-42 percent, according a Reuters/Ipsos daily online poll.
As in several other swing states, Obama has opened up a slight lead in the polls in Virginia, which he won in the 2008 election to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to take the state in decades.
BLAME FOR DEFENSE CUTS
Bringing the fight to the suburbs of Washington where Obama is well-liked, Romney blamed the incumbent for potential defense cuts that could kick in early next year.
Known as "sequestration," the mandatory cuts in defense and other government spending were agreed upon by the White House and Republicans in Congress last year in a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.
"It's a strange proposal in the first place. It's even stranger that it's being put in place," Romney told a crowd at the American Legion in Springfield, Virginia.
The obligatory cuts are due to begin in January if the two parties in Congress cannot agree on budget savings.
"How in the world as commander-in-chief you can stand by as we shrink our military commitment financially is something I don't understand, and I will reverse it," Romney said.
Congressional Republicans, including vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan, approved the sequestration deal but Romney hopes to use it as evidence that Obama is weak on national security and uncaring about job losses.
Romney also took shots at Obama over second-quarter gross domestic product numbers that were revised downward on Thursday.
The Republican compared Russia's growth to that of the United States, which saw 1.3 percent growth in the second quarter, and said it was evidence the economy is a national security issue.
"1.3 percent versus Russia at 4 percent. China at 7 to 8 percent," Romney said. "We're at 1.3 percent. This is unacceptable. It is not working," he said in Springfield.
"This is the result of policies that have not reignited our economy," Romney said Thursday evening at a fundraiser in Washington. "I think by the end of a second Barack Obama term you'd be roughly $20 trillion in debt. ... This has been a presidency that has not worked."
"The entire world is watching what's happening here and wondering which way we're gonna go. Whether we're going to get serious about our challenges or just kick them down the road," Romney told supporters.
Obama's campaign released a two-minute television advertisement featuring the president talking directly to the camera about his record and his plans for a second term.
"When I took office, we were losing nearly eight hundred thousand jobs a month, and were mired in Iraq," Obama says in the ad. "Today, I believe that as a nation we are moving forward again. But we have much more to do to get folks back to work and make the middle class secure again."
In a reminder of how soon Election Day is, early voting in person began in swing state Iowa.
(Additional reporting by Margaret Chadbourn and Lisa Lambert in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Todd Eastham)