Florida takes center stage in the presidential campaign on Thursday, with President Barack Obama heading to Miami for Spanish-language network Univision's "Meet the Candidates" town hall meeting. Republican challenger Mitt Romney campaigns in Sarasota.
With 29 electoral votes, Florida is always a key state in presidential elections. Obama carried the state in 2008 after President George W. Bush narrowly won Florida twice.
Both candidates are also battling for the Latino vote, a particularly strong bloc in Florida. In the latest Gallup poll, registered Hispanic voters favor Obama over Romney 66% to 26%.
Romney, who will attend private fund-raisers in Palm Beach after his Sarasota rally, took his turn at the Univision forum on Wednesday.
He tackled the secretly taped video of remarks at a private fund-raising event during which he said 47% of the country was unlikely to support him and also took on the issue of illegal immigration.
Romney said he would not support a mass deportation of illegal immigrants.
"I believe people make their own choices as to whether they want to go home and that's what I mean by self-deportation," Romney said. "People decide if they want to go back to the country of their origin and get in line legally to be able to come to this country."
The audience seemed largely supportive, cheering his immigration remarks.
Romney also said he had "demonstrated my capacity to help the 100%" -- a clear reference to the videotaped comments that have dominated discussion of his campaign in recent days.
During that secretly recorded May 17 fund-raiser, Romney said nearly half of the population believes they are entitled to government aid and will support Obama regardless of what he does or says.
"There are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing."
He also said he would "never convince" the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income tax "that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Throughout the day Wednesday, Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan also sought to reshape the campaign narrative less than seven weeks before the November vote by accusing Obama of favoring wealth redistribution -- code for socialism among conservatives -- based on a 1998 video of the president as a state Senate candidate in Illinois.
"I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution -- because I actually believe in some redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot," Obama says in the clip, posted Tuesday on the Drudge Report.
America does not work by government making people dependent on government, Romney told a fund-raising event Wednesday in Atlanta, adding "that will kill the American entrepreneurship that's lifted our economy over the years."
"The question of this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class? I do. He does," the former Massachusetts governor said to rising cheers. "The question is who can help the poor and the middle class? I can! He can't!"
The White House on Wednesday characterized the GOP attacks as an effort to divert attention from Romney's controversial remarks.
On Thursday, the Republican establishment lined up solidly behind Romney. More than 30 Republicans took to the Senate floor in a series of coordinated speeches that attacked what they called failed leadership by the president and Senate Democrats.
"Don't do anything that involves making tough choices," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, offered as a description of Democratic strategy. "Just sit around, sit around and kill time in the hopes that the voters will focus on the other guys instead."
Conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina targeted Obama's major overseas achievement -- the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- by saying that mission alone failed to serve as a foreign policy.
"Is anybody deterred from attacking America's interests in the Mideast because bin Laden is dead?" he asked, adding: "There is no coherent foreign policy at a time when we need one."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada responded to what he called a "remarkable show of hubris, of arrogance" by Senate Republicans that he said was "the very definition of chutzpah."
"They are complaining about a result that they themselves created," Reid said, reiterating his longstanding complaint of GOP obstruction tactics against Obama's policies and agenda. "They have created the fact that we haven't gotten anything done. They are good at it."
A flurry of polls this week showed Romney unable to make up ground on Obama and slipping behind in some key battleground states, including Virginia. A new CNN/ORC International survey on Wednesday showed Obama also holding a 52% to 44% lead in Romney's birth state of Michigan.
Another new poll showed the secretly recorded Romney comments had a moderately negative impact on registered voters so far.