WASHINGTON -- Government spending and debt are emerging as a campaign tug-of-war, with Mitt Romney blaming President Barack Obama for a "prairie fire of debt" and Obama calling the charge a "cowpie of distortion." House Speaker John Boehner is talking about a debt ceiling that is still more than eight months away.
What gives? In a word, polling.
The American public is growing increasingly distressed about government spending and high budgets. The issue now ranks as high on the worry scale as lack of jobs. And it worked well for Republicans in 2010, who galvanized voters with ads and flyers that drew attention to government red ink and took back control of the U.S. House after four years of Democratic rule.
Republicans are looking for that magic again.
Romney has maintained a drumbeat of criticism over Obama's handling of federal spending and the national debt in recent weeks, forcing the president on the defensive on an issue where public opinion is stacked against him.
In Iowa earlier this month, Romney said a "prairie fire of debt" was sweeping across the nation, threatening the country's future. He accused Obama of inflating the debt that he had pledged to reduce and ballooning the federal budget deficit with the 2009 economic stimulus and 2010 health care bill after saying he would cut it sharply.
Obama, in campaign events in Colorado, California and Iowa this week, argued that federal spending had slowed to rates not seen in decades after he inherited a $1 trillion large debt and later pushed for $2 trillion in spending cuts. The president pointed to Romney's tax proposal, saying it would give millionaires tax cuts at the expense of the debt.
Obama called Romney's claims a "cowpie of distortion" and would saddle the debt with $5 trillion in new tax cuts, likening it to trying to put out "a prairie fire with some gasoline."
"What happens is, the Republicans run up the tab, and then we're sitting there and they've left the restaurant," Obama said at a campaign event in Des Moines. "And then they point and (say), `Why did you order all those steaks and martinis?'"
Obama's defensive crouch on debt and spending reflect a hard reality: Polls consistently show voters, including sought-after independents, placing more trust in Romney to handle the massive debt. The nation's economy remains a focal point for voters but many remain concerned that years of heavy federal spending on guns and butter could leave the U.S. in a similar position as Greece and other European nations grappling with massive debt.
A Gallup/USA Today poll conducted May 10-13 found that overall, 82 percent of Americans called the "federal budget deficit and debt" extremely or very important, a level of interest comparable to unemployment. The same poll found Romney with a broad advantage on handling the budget deficit and debt, with 54 percent saying he would do a better job handling it compared with 39 percent who chose Obama.
The results mirrored an April Washington Post/ABC News poll, which found 51 percent of Americans sided with Romney on handling the federal budget deficit, compared with 38 percent for Obama. Among independents, 60 percent preferred Romney while 29 percent thought Obama would do a better job handling it.
The White House has tried to respond. Traveling to Colorado Springs, Colo., White House press secretary Jay Carney cited an analysis by MarketWatch that said spending under Obama had grown more slowly than any president since Dwight Eisenhower.
A few hours later, Obama picked up on the piece, telling donors in Denver that his work to pay down the federal debt in a "balanced and responsible" way was "starting to appear in places – real liberal outlets like the Wall Street Journal – since I've been president, federal spending has risen at the lowest pace in nearly 60 years." MarketWatch is published by Dow Jones & Co., which also publishes the Wall Street Journal.
Yet, Obama's budget stewardship is open to interpretation. The debt now stands at $15.7 trillion, compared to $10.6 trillion on his inauguration day. On a dollar basis, that's the biggest ever jump in the debt. How much the debt has grown can also be measures as a percentage of what he inherited. By that measure, the debt has increased by half during the three-and-a-half year Obama administration. During President Ronald Reagan's eight-year administration, the debt nearly tripled, from about $910 billion to more than $2.6 trillion.
Still, much of the increase during Obama's tenure has been a consequence of the recession. In a poor economy, government spending increases automatically because more Americans become eligible for food stamps, unemployment assistance and Medicaid. Also, a poor economy leads to unemployment which cuts into tax revenue. As a result, deficits are inevitable as more money goes out and less comes in.
To be sure, Obama pushed through a stimulus package that cost more than $800 billion and he and President George Bush both approved spending of the $700 billion bank bailout in 2008 and 2009. But those costs are not recurrent.
"It's important to understand the reason why the debt went up by so much," said Robert Bixby of the budget watchdog group The Concord Coalition. "We certainly do have a very serious long-term debt problem in the country. We have an underlying structural imbalance between what we are promising, mostly in entitlement benefits, and what we're willing to pay for in taxes. But in the short-term there are a lot of factors that are pushing the debt up that aren't related to fiscal policy."
Add to the mix Boehner, who has said when Congress is asked to raise the nation's borrowing cap after the election, he will insist on spending cuts to offset the increase. Democratic leaders call it an irresponsible course of action, noting that the gridlock over the debt ceiling last year caused a downgrading of the U.S. government's credit rating.
All of this is aimed at unaligned, independent voters.
In turning attention to debt, Republicans are tapping a winning issue they deployed in congressional races two years ago. In October of 2010, Republican pollster Wes Anderson said, congressional campaigns shifted "away from jobs and economy to government taking us over the cliff." The emphasis proved to be a success at the ballot box.
These days, the economy remains the preeminent issue in voters' minds, but Anderson says middle-of-the-road votes are the targets of the big government message.
"The middle is angry about where we are at and they really see two villains on this stage, this play has two antagonists. Both of them are big," said Anderson, who is working on congressional and statewide political campaigns in several states that are presidential battlegrounds. "One is big business, big Wall Street, big insurance, big oil, just big, abusing the middle class, abusing small businesses, abusing the taxpayer. The other is big government – big government wildly running up massive deficits and debt which abuse the taxpayer, the middle class and small business."
Independent voters, he said, "hold both of those central tenets to be true."
Associated Press Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.