"Talk is cheap," said the former Massachusetts governor, speaking before a banner that read "Putting Jobs First," a recent mantra of his campaign. Then, seizing on Obama's own slogan - "Forward" - Romney cited the huge run-up in the federal debt and asked: "You want four more years of that? You call that forward? That's forward over a cliff. That's forward on the way to Greece."
Obama, addressing rowdy supporters at a community college outside Cleveland, sought to yoke Romney to President George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress, saying they were pursuing an economic agenda - deregulation, tax cuts for the rich - that caused nearly a decade of job losses, from which the country is still recovering.
"Why would we think that they would work better this time?" Obama asked. "We can't afford to jeopardize our future by repeating the mistakes of the past."
Their messages were not strikingly new. Obama argued that things could be - and have been - a whole lot worse. Romney suggested they should - and, with his hand, would be - a whole lot better.
But their back-to-back appearances and the setting, just about 250 miles apart in arguably the most important state up for grabs Nov. 6, crisply delineated the case each is making in their neck-and-neck fight for the White House.
The backdrop was significant. Ohio looms large in the strategic calculations of both campaigns, especially the Romney side. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying the state; polls suggest the contest in Ohio, which has been barraged with more TV advertising than practically any other state, is exceedingly close.
Obama was making his 22d visit as president. Romney was making his fourth visit since winning a crucial March 6 primary and plans to return for three stops on Sunday as part of a bus trip through the Northeast, Pennsylvania, and the Midwest.
The presidential journey to this perennial battleground also represented an attempt by Obama, in effect, to relaunch his campaign after several rough weeks marked by a disappointing May jobs report, off-script comments by several Democratic surrogates, and, last week, a remark by Obama himself - "the private sector is doing fine" - that Republicans seized as evidence of economic obtuseness.
Obama defended his performance on the economy while acknowledging that many are still suffering. While not all he hoped, he said, the country has still managed to create more private-sector jobs in the last two years than in the previous seven under Bush, his GOP predecessor.
He cast November as a chance for voters to break the Washington stalemate between fundamentally different philosophies: the Democratic approach, which, he argued, has produced slow but continued progress, and the Republican prescription he blamed for creating the economic mess in the first place.
If voters "want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney," Obama said.
His GOP rival instead focused unsparingly on the perceived failures of the Democratic incumbent.
He ridiculed Obama once more for his comment regarding the private sector, telling about 150 guests on the Cincinnati factory floor that the president would doubtless not repeat it. More likely, he said, Obama will tell voters: "Give me four more years, even though I didn't get it done in the first 31/2."