RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — President Barack Obama wrapped up Saturday’s inaugural re-election campaign foray blasting his likely Republican foe at a packed-house rally of 8,000 people, some of them drenched from waiting outside in a thunderstorm.
The president opened his bid for a second term in two states critical to victory in November. He flew to Richmond from a similar rally in Columbus, Ohio, on the Ohio State University campus.
Like Ohio, the Richmond crowd was largely a young one, college and high school students and Boy Scouts. It was the same demographic that formed the core of Obama’s well-organized army of volunteers that delivered Virginia for him four years ago.
Playing to that, one of the president’s marquee warm-up acts was Shaka Smart, the popular coach who led Virginia Commonwealth University’s upstart basketball team to an NCAA Final Four berth in 2011. And in VCU’s Siegel Center, the low-ceilinged arena where Smart’s team plays, the ovation when the president appeared reached ear-splitting levels, at times forcing Obama to noticeably strain his already hoarse voice to be heard.
“Four more years! Four more years,” the crowd screamed. Other times, it chanted, “Fired Up! Ready to go!”
In what his campaign is defining as a “make-or-break moment for the middle class,” Obama drew cheers when he tore into presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. He called Romney a “rubber stamp” for Republicans in Congress intent on cutting taxes on the wealthy while bleeding programs for the middle class and freeing corporations and Wall Street of from reforms enacted after the 2008 economic collapse.
“Corporations are not people, people are people,” Obama said, mocking Romney’s comment last fall to a state fair crowd in Iowa.
“He sincerely believes that when CEOs and wealthy investors like him make money, the rest of us automatically prosper as well,” Obama said. “Bigger profits do not lead to bigger jobs. You’ve never worked harder in your lives.”
Both parties have targeted Virginia as a must-win state. Romney was in Virginia Wednesday and Thursday alongside Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, regarded as a prospective running mate for the former Massachusetts governor.
Sitting quietly on the bottom row of bleachers at Obama’s rally was regional Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg and Pete Snyder, director of the Republican coordinated campaign. Henneberg dismissed the standing-room-only crowd as being comprised in party by “people who just want to see a president.”
“We were hoping to hear him take responsibility for his failed record,” Henneberg said.
Instead, she listened to Obama flay Romney in a 36-minute speech, and an audience that delighted in every word.
VCU police reported that a heckler was removed from the top sections of the arena, taken outside and released. A police dispatcher didn’t know what the woman had said,
According to a White House pool report, photographers observed a woman being escorted out of the gym by Richmond police and other security officials. The woman appeared to be wearing dark clothing and U.S. military pins and was carrying a book. She cooperated with police, according to the report.
Most in the crowd clearly backed Obama.
Rosalyn Andrews and Dana Larrick, high school history teachers who drove 2½ hours from Frederick County for their first in-person look at a U.S. president, said they planned to volunteer for Obama in their overwhelmingly Republican community.
“Public education is under a lot of pressure right now, and I support the president’s education policies,” Andrews said. “If I don’t get motivated and advocate for my students and my small children, it’s going to get bad.”
James Johnson, a retired 65-year-old public school employee, said he supported Obama in the past but that the president still has to earn his support anew this go-around.
“It takes a while to see if a candidate is going to cut through the rhetoric and do what he says he’s going to do,” Johnson said.
His wife, sitting beside him, was not so reserved. She said she planned to volunteer for Obama’s phone banks as she did in 2008.
Some, though, just wanted to see a commander-in-chief. Along the route from the airport, people clustered along Richmond streets in a light rain, holding signs and waving as the motorcade sped by. Firefighters stood in front of a firehouse, snapping photos.
On the floor of the VCU arena, behind hundreds of adults in areas reserved for VIPs and volunteers, members of a Boy Scout troop from suburban Midlothian who earlier led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance craned their necks and jumped to catch glimpses of the president. Daniel Aguiar, at age 11 one of the shortest Scouts, could not see the podium. Fellow Scout Justin Hollett, a year older and much taller, noticed his friend’s plight, grabbed him by the waist and hoisted his friend upward, holding him there for several seconds.
“He couldn’t see the president. I just thought I could help him,” said Hollet, his olive green sash covered with merit badges.
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