WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - President Barack Obama, in a campaign-style appearance in the battleground state of Iowa, challenged Republicans to raise taxes on the rich as Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich swiped at him on the economy and criticized each other over immigration.
Obama, who will be on the ballot for re-election in November, demanded Congress approve a tax increase for anyone like Romney whose income exceeds $1 million a year. He toured a manufacturing plant in a state that he won in 2008 that was expected to be a battleground this year.
"This is not class warfare," he said. "That's common sense."
Iowa was the first of five stops in three days following a State of the Union speech to Congress in which Obama stressed the theme of income equality that is expected to be one of the cornerstones of his re-election campaign. He also wove in proposals to help restore the U.S. manufacturing base that has withered in the course of the recession that began in 2008.
Meanwhile, with a week to go before the Jan. 31 Florida Republican presidential primary, the polls suggested a tight race, following Gingrich's upset win over Romney in the South Carolina primary. Romney and his allies seized a staggering advantage in the television ad wars. They have reported spending $14 million combined on commercials, many of them critical of Gingrich — a total at least seven times bigger that the investment made by the former House of Representatives speaker and an organization supporting him.
In general remarks that his aides billed as a rebuttal to the State of the Union speech, Romney said Obama "seemed so extraordinarily detached from reality, so detached from what's going on in Florida," where unemployment is 9.9 per cent and the mortgage foreclosure crisis has hit particularly hard.
Gingrich was harsher at an appearance in Miami.
"If he actually meant what he said it would be a disaster of the first order," Gingrich said of the president's call for higher taxes on millionaires.
Under current law, investment income is taxed as the rate of 15 per cent, a fact that has come to the fore of the campaign in recent days with the release of Romney's income tax return. Wages, by contrast, are taxed at rates that can exceed 30 per cent. Romney, the wealthy former head of a private equity firm, paid a lower rate than most American wage earners because his income comes mostly from investments.
Electablity is the top concern for Republican primary voters, according to polls taken in the primary and caucus states, so both Republicans were eager to paint a contrast with the president.
But Romney and Gingrich also focused on the Florida primary now seven days distant.
Romney has long led in the state's polls, but Gingrich's upset victory last Saturday in the first-in-the-South primary in South Carolina revitalized his candidacy and raised questions about the former Massachusetts governor's staying power.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum is also on the ballot, as is Rep. Ron Paul.
But Santorum has been sinking in the polls as Gingrich rises, and Paul has indicated he intends to bypass the state to concentrate on caucuses to be held elsewhere.
That gives Florida the feel of a two-man race, and Romney and Gingrich are treating it that way. The two men sparred heatedly Monday night in a debate that virtually relegated Santorum and Paul to supporting roles.
A second debate is set for Thursday in Jacksonville. And if their separate appearances during the day on the Spanish-language television network Univision is a guide, it will be as feisty as the first.
Gingrich referred acidly to Romney describing a policy of "self-deportation" as a way of having illegal immigrants leave the country without a massive roundup.
Romney's campaign swiftly produced evidence that aides to Gingrich had used the term "self-deport" approvingly, and the former governor attacked.
Gingrich also ran into trouble over a radio ad his campaign was airing that called Romney "anti-immigrant." Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who is neutral in the presidential race, criticized the commercial, and Romney said the term "anti-immigrant" was an epithet.
Gingrich made a stop in Cocoa, centre of Florida's now-withered space industry, and he cheered his audience by envisioning construction of the first permanent base on the moon. He also promised a "robust industry" of "commercial near-earth activities" to include science, tourism and manufacturing.
Associated Press writers David Espo, Brian Bakst and Kasie Hunt in Florida contributed to this report.