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It was an embarrassing start for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign yesterday as he held his first political rally of the 2012 race in a half-empty arena.

With First Lady dressed head to toe in campaign colors at his side, Barack Obama targeted swing states Ohio and Virginia that are critical for his bid to remain in the White House.

Barack Obama formally launched his Chicago-based re-election effort last year but his official political events have been confined to fundraisers since then.

That changed this weekend, however, with results which may have surprised Barack Obama.

The President, who was propelled to power in the 2008 election thanks in part to huge rallies across the nation, hoped to regain that momentum with events in large arenas in Columbus, Ohio and Richmond, Virginia.

Come game time, however, with his first event – which was free and open to the public – held at Ohio State University, his numbers appeared to fall flat, according to several reports.

One photo taken and posted to Twitter by Republican rival Mitt Romney’s campaign spokesman Ryan Williams showed the floor and seats with more space than people.

The venue holds 20,000 and according to figures from Barack Obama’s campaign, 14,000 attended the event – 70% of the stadium’s seating capacity.

According to the paper, event organizers busied themselves moving people from the stage’s surrounding seats to the arena’s floor to depict a better crowd to television cameras.

Barack Obama targeted swing states Ohio and Virginia that are critical for his bid to remain in the White House

Barack Obama targeted swing states Ohio and Virginia that are critical for his bid to remain in the White House

Aiming to encourage his supporters, Barack Obama released an email prior to his rally reminding them to watch his first rally and donate money.

“The crowd’s starting to form in Columbus, and they’re ready to go,” he said in the email.

“In a little while, I’ll go on stage for the first rally of 2012.”

Barack Obama’s campaign is eager to get the president on the road and at the center of the political battle.

“We’re ready to go,” campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters in a recent conference call.

“While Mitt Romney has been busy endearing himself to the Tea Party and making promises he can’t keep, we’ve been busy building the largest grassroots campaign in modern American history.”

The Republican National Committee released their own email earlier Saturday morning, however, in the mocking form of fake prepared remarks for the president’s rally in Columbus.

“Ohio, thanks for the tepid welcome. I know I’m not as popular here as I once was, so I’ll take what I can get,” the RNC said in the imagined speech it dubbed “as prepared for reality”.

“It turns out the hope and change I promised didn’t work out. So, we’ve launched a new strategy: hype and blame,” the RNC’s email said.

Since Mitt Romney became his party’s presumptive nominee, Barack Obama has criticized his opponent in formal and informal situations – a sign that he is more than ready to launch the attacks that are expected to characterize a potentially ugly and negative campaign.

Republicans accuse Barack Obama of infusing politics into his official White House events and scoff at the notion that his campaigning is just starting.

The president has done official trips in recent months to highlight his energy record and to tout proposals to reduce costs for students. Young people are an important constituency for his campaign.

The Obama campaign has mapped out several scenarios to win the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the presidency, and the choice of states for his inaugural rallies was not coincidental.

Ohio, with its large cache of 18 electoral votes, is a particularly coveted prize.

No Republican has made it to the White House in the last century without winning the state. Barack Obama bested Republican rival John McCain there in 2008.

Ohio has struggled with a loss of manufacturing jobs, but its unemployment rate, at 7.5% in March, is below the national average, which was 8.2% in March and dipped to 8.1% in April.

That could help blunt Mitt Romney’s attacks on Barack Obama’s economic record. The president’s campaign also hopes to capitalize on union anger over an attempt by the state’s Republican governor, John Kasich, to limit collective bargaining rights for firefighters, police officers, and other state workers. The law was later repealed.

Polls show Barack Obama is leading Mitt Romney in Ohio and Virginia. An average of polls by RealClearPolitics showed the president ahead in Ohio by 4.2 percentage points and ahead in Virginia by 3.2 percentage points.

Virginia had an even lower unemployment rate in March, coming in at 5.6%.

The Obama campaign will also try to capitalize on an advantage with women voters in the state, where the governor – Republican Bob McDonnell – promoted legislation that would have required women to undergo an invasive trans-vaginal sonogram before getting an abortion.

Michelle Obama will also help attract the female vote. The popular first lady, who has done fundraisers across the country for her husband’s campaign, will be at his side for both rallies.

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