VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — President Barack Obama pledged to create many more jobs and "make the middle class secure again" in a campaign-closing appeal on Thursday – more than five weeks before Election Day – to voters already casting ballots in large numbers.

Republican Mitt Romney, focusing on threats beyond American shores, accused the commander in chief of backing dangerous cuts in defense spending.

"The idea of cutting our military is unthinkable and devastating. And when I become president we will not," declared the challenger, struggling to reverse a slide in opinion polls.

Romney and Obama campaigned a few hundred miles apart in Virginia, 40 days before their long race ends. They'll be in much closer quarters next Wednesday in Denver – for the first of three presidential debates on the campaign calendar and perhaps the challenger's best remaining chance to change the trajectory of the campaign.

In a race where the economy is the dominant issue, there was a fresh sign of national weakness as the Commerce Department lowered its earlier estimate of tepid growth last spring. Romney and his allies seized on the news as evidence that Obama's policies aren't working.

There was good news for the president in the form of a survey by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation suggesting he has gained ground among older voters after a month-long ad war over Republican plans for Medicare.

The pace also was quickening in the struggle for control of the U.S. Senate.

Prominent Republican conservatives pledged financial and political support for Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri. That complicated Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill's bid for re-election. But it also left Romney, running mate Paul Ryan and the rest of the GOP hierarchy in an awkward position after they tried unsuccessfully to push Akin off the ballot in the wake of his controversial comments about rape.

Farther west, in Arizona, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake unleashed an ad calling Democratic rival Richard Carmona "Barack Obama's rubberstamp." It was not meant as a compliment in a state seemingly headed Romney's way, a response for sure to Democratic claims that the Senate contest was unexpectedly close.

In the presidential race, early voting has already begun in Virginia as well as South Dakota, Idaho and Vermont. It began during the day in Wyoming as well as in Iowa, like Virginia one of the most highly contested states. Early voters had formed a line a half block long in Des Moines before the elections office opened at 8 a.m.

Campaigning in Virginia Beach, Obama said, "It's time for a new economic patriotism, an economic patriotism rooted in the belief that growing our economy begins with a strong and thriving middle class." It was a line straight from the two-minute television commercial his campaign released overnight.

He said that if re-elected he would back policies to create a million new manufacturing jobs, help businesses double exports and give tax breaks to companies that "invest in America, not ship jobs overseas." He pledged to cut oil imports in half while doubling the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks, make sure there are 100,000 new teachers trained in math and science, cut the growth of college tuition in half and expand student aid "so more Americans can afford it."

He also touted a "balanced plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion," but he included $1 trillion in reductions that already have taken place, and he took credit for saving half of the funds budgeted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that no longer are needed.

Obama also said he would "ask the wealthy to pay a little more," a reference to the tax increase he favors on incomes over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. It is perhaps his most fundamental disagreement on policy with Romney, who wants to extend expiring tax cuts at all levels, including the highest.

Obama's campaign put out a second, scathing commercial during the day based on Romney's recorded comments from last May that 47 percent of Americans don't pay income taxes and feel they are victims entitled to government benefits. Romney added that as a candidate his job is not to worry about them.

In the ad, Romney's by-now well-known comments are heard as images scroll by of a white woman with two children in a rural setting, a black woman wearing workplace safety goggles, two older white men wearing Veterans of Foreign Wars hats; a Latino, and finally a white woman with safety goggles – each of them meant to portray millions whom Romney described dismissively in the appearance before donors four months ago.

Romney countered with two new ads of his own, including one that appeared designed to minimize political fallout from the videotape.

"President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families," he says in a direct appeal to voters. "The difference is my policies will make things better for them. We shouldn't measure compassion by how many people are on welfare. We should measure compassion by how many people are able to get off welfare and get a good-paying job."

The second ad pointed to comments Obama made four years ago when he said he would support proposals to raise the cost of business for facilities than run on coal. "So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it's just that it will bankrupt them," the then-presidential candidate is seen saying.

The narrator adds: "Obama wages war on coal while we lose jobs to China, which is using more coal every day. Now your job is in danger."

Romney campaigned at an American Legion hall in Springfield, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., accusing Obama of supporting cuts in the defense budget that would be detrimental to the nation's military readiness.

"The world is not a safe place. It remains dangerous," he said, referring to North Korea, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. "The idea of cutting our military commitment by a trillion dollars over this decade is unthinkable and devastating."

Appealing for support from his audience, he said, "You realize we have fewer ships in the Navy than any time since 1917. ... Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since 1947, when it was formed. This is unacceptable. And the idea of shrinking our active duty personnel by 100,000 or 200,000 – I want to add 100,000 to active duty personnel."

To have a strong military, he said, it's imperative to have a strong economy, yet he added that growth in China and Russia is stronger than in the United States. He predicted that under Obama, there would be no improvement.

"So two -- two very different paths. One is the path the president's proposed, which is the status quo. His is the path of -- well, he calls it `forward.' I call it `forewarned.' All right? All right?

The $1 trillion Romney mentioned in defense cuts had the support of Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress, although he says GOP lawmakers made a mistake in voting for the reductions and several now want to prevent them from taking effect.

____

Associated Press writers Matthew Daly in Springfield, Va., Beth Fouhy in New York and Ben Feller and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report. Espo reported from Washington.

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