TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) -- Vice President Joe Biden made an aggressive entry into the 2012 campaign Thursday, calling out Mitt Romney and the other Republican presidential hopefuls by name for their failure to support the auto bailout.
In his first major campaign address, Biden cast President Barack Obama as an advocate for the middle class, while labeling Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as protectors of the privileged.
"If you give any one of these guys the keys to the White House, they will bankrupt the middle class," Biden said at a United Auto Workers hall in Toledo in the politically important state of Ohio.
Biden directed much of his fire at Romney, the GOP front-runner. He singled out the former Massachusetts governor, a native of the U.S. auto industry's home base of Michigan, for saying the government should let the auto industry go bankrupt and that a bailout would turn the car companies into the "living dead."
"Gov. Romney's predictions of a living dead? We have now living proof: a million jobs saved, 200,000 new jobs created," Biden said as the crowd of about 500 erupted in cheers.
Seeking to draw a direct contrast between Romney and Obama, Biden said: "The president didn't flinch. This is a man with steel in his spine."
Thursday's speech marked the first of four general election events Biden will hold in the coming weeks as the Obama campaign takes sharper aim at the Republican field.
"Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have a fundamentally different vision," Biden said. "We're about promoting the private sector. They're about protecting the privileged sector."
Biden was greeted at the union hall with chants of "Go Joe, Go!" and "Four More Years." The crowd behind him held Obama-Biden 2012 signs.
"I'm back. You're back," Biden said as he revved up the crowd.
Biden, with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, later spent about 30 minutes talking and taking pictures with workers changing shifts at a Chrysler plant in Toledo that makes steering columns and torque converters.
Asked by a reporter why he called out Republican presidential candidates by name in his speech, Biden said: "I just named the three candidates -- make sure everyone knew who I was talking about."
Regardless of who wins the GOP nomination, the Obama campaign sees an opportunity to get a leg up on the competition with Biden's early general election swing and allow Obama to stay above the political fray for as long as possible.
While the three campaign principals -- Obama, Biden and first lady Michelle Obama -- have been headlining campaign fundraisers for several months, officials say the president won't hold campaign-sanctioned public events until after Republicans pick their nominee.
But many of the events Obama has held in recent months, which the White House has said are "official," have sounded like campaign events, including nameless references to the GOP candidates vying to replace him. That goes for a speech Obama delivered Thursday in Maryland, fighting back against Republican criticism of his energy record.
The first lady's campaign strategy is still being crafted, though she is expected to play an active role in the general election.
Biden's campaign strategy has been in the works for several months, and its early rollout underscores his importance to the Democratic ticket.
Heading in to the November election, Biden is expected to target the big three political battlegrounds -- Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Obama carried all three in 2008, but will face an uphill climb in each come November given the toll the recession has taken on those states.
The campaign's goal is to use the vice president's strengths to counteract Obama's perceived weaknesses.
The president sometimes struggles to connect with Ohio's and Pennsylvania's white working-class voters. Some Jewish voters, who make up a core constituency for Florida Democrats, view him with skepticism. Biden has built deep ties to both groups during his four decades in national politics, connections that could make a difference.
As a long-serving member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden cemented his reputation as an unyielding supporter of Israel, winning the respect of many in the Jewish community. And his upbringing in a working-class Catholic family from Scranton, Pa., gives the vice president a valuable political intangible: He empathizes with the struggles of blue-collar Americans.
Democratic officials also believe Biden's presence in key battlegrounds can benefit congressional candidates in those states as the party looks to regain some of the seats it lost in the 2010 midterm elections.
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