Romney, Obama battling like it's nearly voting day

Demonstrators stand outside a fundraiser for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Monday, July 16, 2012 in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON - The intensity of the contest between Republican challenger Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama has reached a level not normally seen in the languid days of summer, reflecting the narrow margin that is likely to decide the next resident of the White House.

As he campaigns in must-win Midwestern states, Romney has stepped up the verbal assaults on Obama's record and political philosophy, but he is facing growing pressure from all points on the political spectrum to be more transparent about his personal wealth and to release more federal tax records.

The former Massachusetts governor also is battling hard-to-deflect questions about his history as the head of Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded and which created his massive wealth, estimated at a quarter billion dollars.

Obama has been trying to keep Romney focused on matters other than the sluggish recovery from the 2008 financial meltdown, even releasing a TV ad Tuesday that suggests Romney may not have paid any taxes at all for years.

Polls show the economy is most important in the minds of voters who will go to the polls in November.

Early Wednesday, the Obama campaign followed up with a web video questioning Romney's claims that he had "no responsibility whatsoever" at Bain after February 1999, despite SEC filings that list him as sole owner and CEO through February 2001.

That is important because Bain was involved in shutting businesses and sending U.S. jobs overseas in that period, a troubling practice in a campaign that depends so heavily on voters' fears about jobs.

Romney takes his fight against Obama to Ohio on Wednesday, building off fiery speeches in Pennsylvania the day before in which he accused his Democratic opponent of believing the government is more vital to a thriving economy than the nation's workers and dreamers.

"I'm convinced he wants Americans to be ashamed of success," Romney declared Tuesday as hundreds of supporters cheered him on.

Having spent most of Tuesday courting donors across Texas, Obama has a series of official meetings in Washington ahead of a two-day Florida campaign swing later in the week.

After being on the defensive for several days, Romney has launched a counterattack this week, punctuated by biting speeches, conference calls and a television ad expected for release Wednesday that accuses Obama of "crony capitalism" and seizes on comments uttered by Obama while campaigning in Virginia last week.

The president, making a point about the supportive role government plays in building the nation, said in part: "Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Obama later added: "The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."

Romney lashed out Tuesday at the remark.

"It's foolish on its face and shocking that a president of the United States would not understand the power of entrepreneurship and innovation," Romney said. "It is an attack on the very premise that makes America such a powerful economic engine."

The Obama campaign said Romney had distorted Obama's message by taking him out of context.

For the often-reserved Romney, the attacks marked a substantial escalation in aggression for a candidate who has recently struggled to answer questions about his business career and personal tax returns. The former businessman, who would be among the nation's wealthiest presidents if elected, has so far released just one year of personal income tax returns and promised to release a second.

That's a stark deviation from a tradition created in part by his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, who as a presidential candidate in 1968 released 12 years of his own returns.

In support of Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has been mentioned in speculation about Romney's choice for a running mate, told CBS television Wednesday that he thinks the media have been obsessed by questions about Romney's taxes.

"I don't think there's any secret to the fact that Mitt Romney has been successful and he's achieved success and he's paid a lot of taxes," Pawlenty said.

Late Tuesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who briefly vied for the Republican presidential nomination — became the latest high-profile conservative to pressure Romney to open up about his finances. Perry, who has released his tax returns dating back to 1992, said anyone running for office should make public as much personal information as possible to help voters decide.

The conservative National Review magazine urged Romney to release additional tax returns, even though it agreed with him that the Obama campaign wanted the returns for a "fishing expedition."

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney will not bow to the pressure.

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Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Ben Feller in Washington, contributed to this report.