WASHINGTON – Denounced by his Republican rival for divisiveness, President Barack Obama on Monday defended the tone of his campaign in a combative election year and insisted it's actually Mitt Romney's ads that are "patently false." But Obama did distance himself from a particularly provocative negative ad by a political group that supports him.
Obama also joined the cascade of criticism from both parties for comments on rape and abortion by a Republican Senate candidate in Missouri, using that new controversy to draw sharp distinctions between his views on women's health issues and those of Republicans.
Obama made a surprise visit to the White House briefing room, at least partly upstaging a joint campaign appearance by Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, in New Hampshire. The rally by Romney and Ryan, their first appearance together after a week of vigorous campaigning separately, had been highly anticipated, drawing an enthusiastic crowd and wide media attention.
The president turned the day into a long-distance point-counterpoint debate with his opponent. He took questions from four reporters, the most he has taken from the national press corps in two months, dealing to an extent with complaints about his inaccessibility. What's more, the flap over rape-and-abortion remarks by Republican Rep. Todd Akin gave the president a chance to make a direct appeal to women, who both campaigns say make up a majority of undecided voters.
At issue was Akin's answer in an interview that aired Sunday that women's bodies can prevent pregnancies in "a legitimate rape" and that conception is rare in such cases. He later said he misspoke and apologized, but he said he would not get out of the race despite such urging from several prominent fellow Republicans.
As for the tone of the campaign, Obama declared that it was important to draw attention to major differences with Romney, but he said his criticism has never been "out of bounds."
Still, he distanced himself from an ad by the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action super political action committee, which is run by former Obama White House aides.
That ad pointedly notes the death of the wife of a steelworker whose company had been taken over by a group of partners that included Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Romney cofounded.
"I don't think that Governor Romney is somehow responsible for the death of the woman that was portrayed in that ad," Obama said. But he added that he did not approve or produce the ad and said it had had only a brief airing on television.
Romney and Ryan, appearing together for the first time in a week, sustained their criticism Monday, leveling new claims of duplicity in Obama's TV ads before about 3,000 friendly people in Manchester.
"It seems that the first victim of an Obama campaign is the truth," Romney said.
Asked by a woman about Obama campaign "lies" that claim the GOP ticket would raise taxes, Romney said, "All we've heard so far is one attack after another."
"I will not raise taxes on anyone," Romney said. "Mr. President, stop saying something that's not the truth."
In his news conference, Obama countered, saying his speeches and the ads run by his re-election campaign have focused accurately on substantive issues such as taxes and spending. By contrast, he said Romney has aired "patently false" claims that the president is "gutting" welfare's work requirement.
Obama also defended ads criticizing Romney's refusal to release more than two years' worth of tax returns. He said those seeking the White House must know their life is an "open book." And he added that pressing Romney on such a subject is "pretty standard stuff" and not "overly personal."
Obama said he has "sharp differences" with Romney on major issues and that those are fair game for tough ads.
Even so, he added, "Nobody accused Mr. Romney of being a felon," as some Republicans have suggested of Obama. However, Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter earlier this summer said that questions about when Romney left his post as head of Bain raised issues of potential illegal activity.
"Either Mitt Romney, through his own words and his own signature, was misrepresenting his position at Bain to the SEC, which is a felony," Cutter said at the time, "or he is misrepresenting his position at Bain to the American people to avoid responsibility for some of the consequences of his investments."
In Missouri, Republican Rep. Akin's comments on rape came in the midst of his campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Obama condemned Akin's remarks as "offensive" and took issue with past attempts by lawmakers in Congress to limit taxpayer funding of abortions to cases of "forcible rape," incest and danger to the life of the mother.
"Rape is rape," the president said.
Romney also weighed in, calling Akin's comments on rape "insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong." A number of other Republicans decried the remarks as well and at least two Republican senators called on Akin to drop out of the race. "If it was me," GOP Chairman Reince Priebus told CNN, "I would step aside and let someone else run for that office."
Akin on Monday apologized anew but said he would stay in.
Obama said: "What I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn't have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women." He acknowledged the criticism of Akin from Romney and fellow Republicans, but said:
"I think the underlying notion that we should be making decisions on behalf of women for their health care decisions – or qualifying forcible rape versus non-forcible rape – I think those are broader issues, and that is a significant difference in approach between me and the other party."
A House bill last year would have placed abortion restrictions on some federal tax breaks for medical care. Federal laws have long banned the use of taxpayer money for abortions except in cases of rape and incest or to save the life of the mother. Last year's proposal initially referred to an exception for "forcible" rape. That wording was eventually dropped from the bill the House passed.
In New Hampshire, Romney and Ryan made a multi-pronged case against the administration, saying Obama's policies on taxes, Medicare and foreign policy have let down the American people.
The GOP running mates promised a sunnier future of lower taxes, lower deficits, more jobs at home, and greater U.S. prestige abroad. But they offered few details on how they would achieve these goals, which have vexed Congresses and White Houses for years.
Romney's pledge not to raise anyone's taxes while also reducing federal deficits is one of several promises he has made that many independent analysts have questioned. He said tax cuts lead to greater economic growth, which in turn brings greater overall tax revenues to run the government.
The burden on U.S. taxpayers, as a proportion of the overall economy, is lower than it has been in several decades, but the nation's debt is at a record high.
After his joint appearance with Romney in New Hampshire, Ryan drove to Boston to meet the legion of staffers who worked on his rollout and now arrange all aspects of his life between now and Election Day. He also called the entire staff at Romney headquarters together for a pep talk, aides said.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott and Julie Pace in New Hampshire contributed to this report.