TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Make no mistake, the presidential campaign is well under way for the Democrats as well as the Republicans. Vice President Joe Biden called out Mitt Romney and other GOP rivals as being "dead wrong" about the auto bailout, a feisty ramping-up by President Barack Obama's top political surrogate even as the Republicans battle each other through the primaries.
Biden's sharply worded attack marked a new offensive by Obama's re-election team as it seeks to set the terms for the general election while Romney and his GOP rivals are still mired in their party's nominating process.
In keeping with tradition, Biden, as No. 2 on the ticket, will be the campaign enforcer, leveling targeted attacks on Republicans. And his speech before a boisterous, 500-person crowd at a United Auto Workers hall in politically crucial Ohio suggested it's a role he plans to fully embrace.
"If you give any one of these guys the keys to the White House, they will bankrupt the middle class," Biden said of the Republican field.
"Gingrich and Romney and Santorum, they don't let the facts get in the way," he added. It was notable that Biden criticized the Republicans by name. He and Obama have generally refrained from doing that, aiming their criticism more generally at Republicans or opponents.
As Biden campaigned in Ohio, the GOP presidential candidates fanned out across the country, including the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, on their hunt for delegates.
Romney held fundraisers in New York, restocking his campaign ahead of caucuses Saturday in Missouri, where Rick Santorum and Romney have both invested substantial time. Puerto Rico is holding its primary on Sunday, drawing rare attention in the lengthy primary battle.
In San Juan, Santorum tried to extricate himself from a flap he caused by saying that making English an official language should be a "condition" of statehood for Puerto Rico and that the island would need to ensure that English is spoken "universally." It's set to hold a referendum on statehood in November and whether it becomes the 51st state is a critical issue there.
"I never said only English should be spoken here. Never did I even intimate that," Santorum told local reporters in El Capitolio, the island's Capitol building. "What I said was that English had to be spoken as well as other — obviously Spanish is going to be spoken, this would be a bilingual country."
Gingrich, meanwhile, sought to build support in Illinois, which holds its primary next week. The former House speaker said he expected voters to give him another look once they grow tired of an advertising war between Santorum and Romney.
"I believe we need a visionary leader who is prepared to break out of politics as normal," Gingrich said in the chapel of Judson University in suburban Chicago.
Republicans fired back at Biden. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said his speech was irrelevant to the needs of family budgets "being stretched by everything from food prices to soaring prices at the pump."
The vice president's speech was the first of four events the Obama campaign has planned for Biden in the coming weeks. His task, campaign officials said, is to define the core issues of the campaign and draw a clear contrast between the president and the Republican contenders.
In Ohio, Biden's focus was squarely on the auto bailout, a policy the Obama team sees as emblematic of the differences between Obama and Romney's visions for the middle class. The vice president repeatedly singled out Romney, a Michigan native, for saying the government should let the auto industry go bankrupt.
"Gov. Romney said the market, Wall Street, would help lift them out. Wrong," Biden said.
"Any honest expert will tell you in 2009 no one was lining up to lend General Motors or Chrysler any money, or for that matter to lend money to anybody. That includes Bain Capital. They weren't lining up to lend any money," he added.
Bain Capital is the private equity firm Romney once headed.
Biden was as aggressive in his defense of Obama's policies as he was in his criticism of the GOP.
Of Obama's decision to press forward with the auto bailout, he said: "The president didn't flinch. This is a man with steel in his spine."
The day took Biden from a union hall, where he was greeted with chants of "Go, Joe, Go!" and "Four More Years," to a shift change outside a Toledo Chrysler plant that makes steering columns to an elementary school in Perrysburg, Ohio.
With the vice president now fully engaged in the campaign, the Obama re-election team sees an opportunity to rely on a strong and forceful defend
er of the president to build support among Democrats, while allowing Obama himself to stay above the political fray for as long as possible.
While the three campaign principles — Obama, Biden and first lady Michelle Obama — have all been headlining fundraisers for several months, officials say the president won't hold campaign-sanctioned public events until after Republicans pick
Michelle Obama'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.
In the lead-up 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 he will face an uphill climb in each come November given the toll the recession has taken on the states.
The campaign's goal is to use the vice president's strengths to counteract Obama's perceived weaknesses.
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.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in Elgin, Ill., and Steve Peoples in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.
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