MILWAUKEE — President Barack Obama worked to squash GOP hopes for a resurgence in pivotal Wisconsin on Saturday, pushing back against his GOP rival's complaints about an overly intrusive government and attracting his biggest crowd of the campaign. Mitt Romney took precious time away from campaigning in the battleground states to troll for cash in California and kept up his criticism of the president for fostering a culture of dependency.
The president faulted Romney for advancing a top-down economic approach that "never works."
"The country doesn't succeed when only the folks at the very top are doing well," he said. "We succeed when the middle class is doing well."
Obama, speaking to an energized throng of 18,000 people in an at-times-rainy outdoor amphitheater, made a point of renewing his pledge to create a million manufacturing jobs as he campaigned in a state whose manufacturing industry has been hard hit in recent years.
With just six weekends left before Election Day, both candidates were devoting considerable time to raising cash to continue bankrolling the deluge of ads already saturating hotly contested states.
Baseball great Hank Aaron supplied the star power at Obama's Milwaukee fundraisers.
"As one who wore the number 44 on his back for decades, I ask you to join me in helping the 44th president of the United States hit a grand slam," said Aaron.
Romney, who is expected to launch a more aggressive campaign schedule in the coming week, hunted for West Coast cash, if not votes, at a private fundraiser near San Diego and headed for another in Los Angeles. Some Republicans have grumbled that he's not spending enough time with voters in swing states, and Romney seemed to take note of that sentiment.
"I've got good news: This is the last fundraiser in San Diego," Romney told supporters. "I'm not even going to be able to go home today. We're just coming to town to see you and keep the campaign going. It's nonstop."
Romney adviser Kevin Madden said the GOP nominee would begin "a really intense battleground state schedule." The former Massachusetts governor will campaign in Colorado, Ohio and Virginia in the coming week.
With running mates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan campaigning in New England and Florida, respectively, the presidential campaign was spread far and wide – both geographically and strategically. Biden revved up union activists poised to canvass for votes in New Hampshire while Ryan appealed to Hispanic voters in Miami and talked space policy in Orlando.
It was Obama's first visit to Wisconsin since February, and the president was intent on shoring up support in Ryan's home state. Obama's politicking included an unscheduled stop at a local deli, where he tried out some bratwurst in a pretzel roll with spicy mustard – and managed to chat up a few patrons from Ohio, another crucial state.
Obama won Wisconsin easily in 2008 but Ryan is popular here and recent polls have Obama up by single digits. The GOP showed its organizational strength in fending off efforts to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker, but Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Democrats "continue to have a strategic advantage," with more field offices and political infrastructure in the state.
With absentee voting already under way in the state, first lady Michelle Obama will campaigning there next week.
Obama made the case against Romney before a crowd at the Milwaukee Theater, countering Romney's call to change Washington from the inside with an appeal to voters to help him break through partisan gridlock with pressure on Congress from the outside. He said that despite economic troubles, his administration has made progress and has made "practical and specific" proposals to create jobs.
"We've seen half a million new jobs in manufacturing, the fastest pace since the 1990s," he said. "And so the choice now is, do we reverse that progress or do we move forward?
Romney, at his fundraiser near San Diego, said Obama was "taking Americans on a course that is extremely foreign to us."
"One would suggest that government knows better than free people," he said. "It's a pathway to become like Europe, and Europe doesn't work there. It's never going to work here. It's even possible we could be on a pathway to become California -- I don't want that either."
In advance of Obama's visit, Romney's campaign made the argument that Obama's failure to turn around the economy had Wisconsin voters looking for a different path. Walker said the president had a "Wisconsin problem." The state's 7.5 percent unemployment rate is below the national average, but manufacturing has struggled.
The Republican National Committee released a web video, "Since You've Been Gone," highlighting recent GOP organizing efforts in the state and Walker's success in fending off recall.
Messina saw good signs all over, saying, "We're either tied or in the lead in every battleground state 45 days out. I think you will see a tightening in the national polls going forward."
Ryan, campaigning in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, reinforced Romney's argument that Obama hasn't been able to make needed changes in Washington, poking at the president's recent comment that it's hard to change Washington from the inside without mobilizing public pressure on Congress from the outside.
"Why do we send presidents to the White House in the first place?" Ryan asked. "We send presidents to change and fix the mess in Washington, and if this president has admitted that he can't change Washington, then you know what? We need to change presidents."
He also faulted Obama for a "policy of appeasement" toward the Castro regime in Cuba, saying all the president had done was "reward more despotism."
Obama has eased restrictions to allow Americans to travel to Cuba and to let Cuban-Americans to send money to family on the island. But the president has stopped well-short of discussing lifting the 50-year-old economic embargo, which is widely viewed in Latin America as a failure and has complicated U.S. relationships in the region.
Campaign spokeswoman Jenn Psaki said the president had supported democracy movements on the island and worked to give people there more say in their futures.
In an appearance in Orlando, not far from Florida's space coast, Ryan criticized the president for putting the U.S. space program "on a path where we are conceding our global position as the unequivocal leader in space." The Obama campaign responded that Ryan has proposed deep cuts in spending for space exploration.
Underscoring the importance of grass-roots efforts in the campaign's final days, Biden rallied union workers at a Teamsters union hall in Manchester, N.H., saying their organizing work would be the "antidote" to millions spent on advertising by Republican-leaning super PACs.
Biden said it was because of unions that the U.S. has a strong middle class, and he accused Romney and Ryan of having "a completely different value set, a completely different vision."
"They're doubling down on everything that caused the economic crisis in the first place," he said.
The GOP nominee is feeling fundraising pressure: Last month, for the first time in four months, Obama and the Democratic Party raised more than Romney and the Republican Party, $114 million to $111.6 million.
Benac reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay in Miami, Steve Peoples in San Francisco and Holly Ramer in Manchester, N.H., contributed to this report.