By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With his wife at his side and Air Force One as a campaign plane, President Barack Obama holds his first political rallies of the 2012 presidential race on Saturday, targeting two swing states that could be critical to his bid to retain the White House.
Obama, a Democrat, formally launched his Chicago-based re-election effort last year, but his official political events have been confined to fundraisers since then.
That changes this weekend.
The president, who was propelled to power in the 2008 election thanks in part to huge rallies across the nation, hopes to regain that momentum with events in large arenas in Columbus, Ohio and Richmond, Virginia. Thousands of people are expected to attend.
Since Republican Mitt Romney became his party's presumptive nominee, Obama has criticized his opponent in formal and informal situations - a sign that he is more than ready to start the attacks that are expected to characterize a potentially ugly and negative campaign. He is likely to be sharply critical of Romney during his Saturday rallies.
Republicans accuse Obama of infusing politics into his official White House events and scoff at the notion that his campaigning is just starting. The president has done official trips in recent months to highlight his energy record and to tout proposals to reduce costs for students. Young people are an important constituency for his campaign.
"We're ready to go," campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters in a recent conference call.
"While Mitt Romney has been busy endearing himself to the Tea Party and making promises he can't keep, we've been busy building the largest grassroots campaign in modern American history."
The Obama campaign has mapped out several scenarios to win the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the presidency, and the choice of states for his inaugural rallies was not coincidental.
Ohio, with its large cache of 18 electoral votes, is a particularly coveted prize. No Republican has made it to the White House in the last century without winning the state. Obama bested rival John McCain there in 2008.
Ohio has struggled with a loss of manufacturing jobs, but its unemployment rate, at 7.5 percent in March, is below the national average, which was 8.2 percent in March and dipped to 8.1 percent in April.
That could help blunt Romney's attacks on Obama's economic record. The president's campaign also hopes to capitalize on union anger over an attempt by the state's Republican governor, John Kasich, to limit collective bargaining rights for firefighters, police officers, and other state workers. The law was later repealed.
Polls show Obama is leading Romney in Ohio and Virginia. An average of polls by RealClearPolitics showed the president ahead in Ohio by 4.2 percentage points and ahead in Virginia by 3.2 percentage points.
Virginia had an even lower unemployment rate in March, coming in at 5.6 percent. The Obama campaign will also try to capitalize on an advantage with women voters in the state, where the governor - Republican Bob McDonnell - promoted legislation that would have required women to undergo an invasive trans-vaginal sonogram before getting an abortion.
Obama's wife, Michelle, will also help attract the female vote. The popular first lady, who has done fundraisers across the country for her husband's campaign, will be at his side for both rallies.
(Reporting By Jeff Mason; Editing by Xavier Briand)